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Education and Eating Disorders: 5 Challenges and 5 Strategies

Students with eating disorders often develop a complicated relationship between their education and their health. Laura, a recent college graduate who has struggled with an eating disorder more than half of her life, explains: “School has been something that has driven my eating disorder.”

On campuses, comparisons among peers (of both appearance and academic standing) and high performance expectations breed perfectionism, a hallmark quality for many eating disorders. It’s both normal and encouraged to prioritize academic achievement over sleep, food, and other self-caring activities.

When the time comes to make decisions about college, if you have an eating disorder history, it’s important to reflect on how you will manage independent living, academics, and health. It may require flexibility, creativity, and added support.

When it came time for Laura to consider college, people discouraged her ambitions out of concern for her health. She applied anyway, and was accepted. But after several semesters, she decided to step away: “It wasn’t the right time in my life.” She spent nearly a decade traveling and working a variety of jobs. Then at age twenty-eight, she felt called back to school–she loves learning, and knew she would need a degree to pursue her dreams. So she enrolled at a small college in New York City.

But soon after classes began, Laura’s eating disorder resurfaced. Entering college the second time, Laura knew that “school had always been a challenge, and my eating disorder is always there.” Yet she had not anticipated the massive burnout that resulted from juggling a full-time academic schedule, a job, and a fellowship.

Other challenges college students with eating disorders, like Laura, may face include:

  • Self-care: In high-pressured environments like college, it can seem acceptable to not take a break from working to care for your needs, to eat standing up, or to not sleep enough. Laura admits: “I would work all day. It was very easy to say, ‘I’m too busy to eat, I’ll do that later.’ Instead of attending to my recovery, I would pull an all-nighter.”
  • Perfectionism: The truth is, school performance is important, for future endeavors, graduate school applications, and financial aid awards. Laura reflects: “Doing well really does matter. But it also can be such fuel for my eating disorder, because I want to be the best at all times.” There is a critical difference between wanting to do well, which is a healthy human desire and motivating force, and perfectionism, which is based in a self-harming standard for an unachievable outcome.
  • Symptoms: Eating disorder behaviors drain your physical, mental, and emotional resources, making it hard to focus and be present. When in the thick of her eating disorder at school, Laura noticed: “When I am not my sharpest self, I cannot be my most confident self.”
  • Stereotypes: Stereotypes present another challenge to pursuing recovery. Often people view eating disorders as primarily afflicting young, mid-to-upper class females. Students who don’t fit that mold may feel alienated, which can make it hard to be honest about what’s really going on.
  • Academic accommodation: Unfortunately, many schools are still not adequately equipped to address the unique needs of eating disorder recovery. While college disability offices and mental health services are resources students can utilize, administrators may not be as understanding. When Laura requested assistance from her school’s disability office to drop a class that triggered her eating disorder, the school administration dismissed the disability office’s recommendations: “They would not give me the accommodations I needed.” They asked Laura to sit down with someone who had no mental health experience to make her case, which she found “re-traumatizing.” They suggested that she should “just shake it off.” But eventually, she was able to drop the class.

To tend to your eating disorder recovery while in an educational environment, these actions may be helpful:

  • Be Honest: Though shame may lead you to want to remain silent about you eating disorder struggles, it can be hugely helpful to tell the truth to a few people you deem safe. When she decided to be forthright at school, Laura was able to begin her healing journey in earnest: “What really helped was owning it, and being honest and direct with my professors. They cared about what was going on with me.”
  • Utilize School Resources: Although school administration may be unfamiliar with how to best accommodate your recovery, there likely are mental health or disability resources at your school that can help. In Laura’s experience, being registered with the Center for Students with Disabilities “gave some clout to what I was saying to my professors.”
  • Re-prioritize: When in the grind of a semester, it is easy to lose sight of big picture goals. Taking stock of your values and intentions for yourself can help you reprioritize your day-to-day choices around studying and self-care. If you are not at a point where you can say, “I need to be gentle with myself, so I’m going to slow down,” consider a tactic Laura tried: “I used the rationale that I would rather take time off than compromise my GPA.”
  • Accept Where You Are: One of the hardest things humans must do at times in life is to surrender, to stop trying to make everything work and to do it all. Initially, Laura resisted the reality of how much she was struggling: “I did everything I could do to avoid taking time off. I did not want to have to leave school. It seemed like an end-of-the-world decision.” But at a certain point, she realized: “What I really had to do was take a semester off.” And it turned out not to be as devastating as she had anticipated.
  • Step Away: Ultimately, Laura took spring semester off to attend four months of residential and day treatment programs. After this time, she returned to school with revived zest, strength, and clarity–and graduated. She now wholeheartedly believes: “The best thing I could have done to preserve myself as a student was to stop being a student.”

If you or a student you know may be struggling with an eating disorder, contact EDRS to learn more about if campus recovery support might be a helpful resource. You also may want to explore what resources your school offers, such as eating disorder awareness events, peer support groups, campus health and counseling services, and residence life programs.

To explore more about navigating eating disorder recovery on campus, read:

  • Eating disorders among college-aged males articles:
  1. http://eatingdisorderspecialists.com/eating-disorders-challenges-among-college-aged-males-part-1/
  2. http://eatingdisorderspecialists.com/eating-disorders-among-college-aged-males-helps/