Desperate for control
By LAURA ROMPF
The stress on Notre Dame students is overwhelming. Papers, tests and commuter programs. Volunteering, sports and relationships. Having control over even one aspect of life is an accomplishment. Unfortunately, for approximately 10 percent of the student population, this "control" is causing harm and even permanent damage to their bodies.
On the national level more than 5 million Americans suffer from eating disorders — 5 percent of adolescent and adult women, and 1 percent of men have anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, or binge-eating disorder.
Fifteen percent of young women have substantially disordered eating attitudes and behaviors, and an estimated 1,000 women die each year of anorexia nervosa.
"Western culture itself puts a focus on looks, body image, and being thin," said Chris Pendley, assistant director of Counseling and Career Development at St. Mary's. "On a college campus appearance is very important in attracting a mate, especially in the age group 18 to 24. Appearance is seen as a key to success."
Pendley added that many other aspects of college life add to the ideal environment for eating disorders.
"An aspect of college that causes eating disorders is students worry about gaining the "freshman 15," said Pendley. "This worry causes them to forget that their bodies are naturally maturing and changing, and the weight gain experienced is not always fat."
"Another factor is residence halls. I know at Saint Mary's and I assume it is true of Notre Dame, our students are very competitive. This competitiveness can carry over into appearance; they want to look the best," Pendley continued.
"Several other factors are also involved. Stress both academic and financial and being away from home for the first time all cause eating disorders," she said.
"Bulimia might develop because students have unlimited access to food in the dining hall. Where at home dinner would consist of what was served and once it was gone, it was gone. Because students can go back several times, bingeing may occur," she said.
Due to all these factors, the environment on college campuses cause for a higher concentrated source of the three main eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and compulsive overeating.
Anorexic individuals deliberately starve for weight loss, have an intense and persistent fear of gaining weight, refuse to eat except in tiny portions, continually diet, deny hunger and exercise compulsively. In some cases they have excessive facial and body hair, have a distorted body image, abnormal weight loss, are sensitive to cold, have absent or irregular menstruation, and experience hair loss.
Bulimic individuals have a preoccupation with food, binge usually in secret, vomit after they binge, abuse of laxative, diuretics, diet pills or metics, compulsively exercise, have swollen salivary glands and broken blood vessels in their eyes.
Compulsive overeaters also eat unusually large amount of food within a certain period of time while feeling out of control. However, they have no episodic purging behaviors such as vomiting, diuretic, laxative or enema use, fasting or excessive exercise.
All three disorders cause physiological problems including depression, shame, mood swings, low self esteem, withdrawal, impaired family and social relationships, "all-or-nothing" thinking, and finally perfectionism.
At Notre Dame, about one in 10 students suffers from these disorders. "It's hard to say what percentage of the student body suffers from eating disorders," said Patrick Utz, director of the Counseling Center at Notre Dame. "Overall, given the nature of our student body, maybe 10 percent have some type of eating problem."
A formal study of this number is in the works. "We had a studied conducted 10 years ago and we will be starting another one in January," Utz said. "However, the problem with eating disorders is that by their nature, they are meant to be secretive. Those suffering want to maintain a sense that they are hiding the disorder."
Saint Mary's also lacks exact numbers. "We do not have any statistics on the exact percentage of students with eating disorders, whether or not it is greater or less than the general population. However, it is an issue we deal with and since we are an all-women's college, most likely the percentage is greater here on our campus."
Both Notre Dame and Saint Mary's offer help to students suffering from eating disorders. Utz explained the counseling center's three-fold process.
"Our first role at the counseling center is to meet with the student and decide the nature of their problem," he said. "We have a nutritionist, physician and psychiatrist on board."
"Our secondary role is education. We go to residence halls at rector's requests and provide information to students. Third we deal with group counseling sessions of students and help students in this manner," he said.
The program at Saint Mary's is similar. "We use a multifaceted approach to deal with students with eating disorders," Pendley said. "They receive a physical from Health Services and also psychiatric help. If need be, we send students off campus for more help."
Even though both of these methods are successful, group counseling sessions have not remained as useful. "Over the years we have always offered group counseling sessions, but for the past four semesters no one has signed up for these groups," Utz said. "At other universities, there are often the most used because they become like a support group. In the past we have had success, but it feels now like students are embarrassed."
Saint Mary's students are also not participating. "We have tried to offer a body image group but have had minimal responses. Because eating disorders are a hidden illness, if a student joins a group at a campus with a small student body, they lose anonymity."
On the other hand, Saint Mary's has a new process that allows concerned students to help their friends. "We encourage students to do a `Carefrontation' a pretty simple method students can use and we offer to coach them," Pendley said.
"We tell them to identify specific problems to make sure they have things clear in their head. Then if they are competent, they can deal directly with their friend. If they choose, they can involve the hall director. It's a very non-judgmental process."
So have these methods been effective?
"I don't believe the problem is getting any worse," said Utz. "However, I don't think it's getting better either."
Pendley says that because of the college environment, eating disorders will always be a problem, but if students are educated, the problem can be lessened.
"I would like to see men and women become more cognitive that what they are seeing on television and in print is not real, and thus not to set expectations with these sources," she said.
All News Stories for Tuesday, November 30, 1999