About 20 people gathered in the Michigan Union Wednesday evening to participate in a dialogue on eating disorders, hosted by campus mental health organization Active Mind. The panel is one of six events the organization is holding in conjunction with Project Heal, a nonprofit established to provide treatment scholarships for those with eating disorders, for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.
During the event, Kate Fawcett, a program social worker and therapist at the University of Michigan Comprehensive Eating Disorders Program, stressed the importance of interventions. Most people who suffer from eating disorders will not readily recognize or admit the problem, so friends who are aware should be ready to help, she said.
“The eating disorder comes in and eclipses your life,” she said, noting that she had battled an eating disorder herself for years. “Food, eating, exercise, weight, body management — the eating disorder speaks on your behalf.”
She asked students to acknowledge and respond to warning signs, such as someone becoming more withdrawn, less social at events that involve food, skipping meals, or engaging in unhealthy habits.
“If someone is really in danger, you owe it to them to help them get some help,” she said.
Student organizers also presented findings from a recent U-SHAPE survey, which garnered statistics specific to eating disorders at the University, during the event. Approximately 27.8 percent of female undergraduates, 11.8 percent of male undergraduates, 21.5 percent of female graduate students and 10.3 percent of male graduate students who responded to the survey screened positive for an eating disorder.
The survey also showed that treatment levels remain low: 82 percent of women and 96 percent of men who screened positive did not seek treatment. As well, even in the absence of a diagnosable eating disorder, many respondents suffered from body image, self-confidence and self-worth issues.
Along with their presentation, the group also held an open dialogue session with three panelists.
In response to a question about how eating disorders affect different genders, age groups and identities, Stephanie Koenig, leader and founder of Project Heal southeast Michigan’s chapter, affirmed that anyone can be vulnerable to suffering an eating disorder.
“Eating disorders can affect anybody, regardless of age and gender,” she said. “The fact that people have better access to treatment can skew statistics. Some are also less likely to seek treatment because of stigma, shame and cultural factors.”
On campus, the U-SHAPE survey noted prevalence of both stigma and perceived stigma surrounding eating disorders. More than 60 percent of students surveyed said they thought peers would think less of them if they had an eating disorder; 30 percent said they would think less of peer with an eating disorder.
Fawcett also pointed to the potentially devastating effects of an eating disorder on the body.
“In our center, we teach how eating disorders affects the three Bs: brains, bones and baby. Bones: people with eating disorders are at risk of low bone density and osteoporosis. A woman who is malnourished for a long time might not be able to have a baby. Finally, the brain shrinks and loses gray and white matter when the body is malnourished.”
While these health effects can be mitigated with early treatment, some might ultimately be irreversible, Fawcett added.
All three panelists agreed that starting a conversation with a friend whom you suspect has an eating disorder is difficult but necessary.
Engineering sophomore Maggie Hafers, a panelist, pointed out the importance of discerning the meaning behind each response and taking follow-up action.
“A super defensive reaction is a huge red flag. Don’t stop there. Don’t let the person convince you that what they do is normal,” Hafers said.
Fawcett suggested a gentle, kind and direct approach when reaching out to someone you suspect has an eating disorder.
Koenig also addressed the need to be sensitive in choice of comments and language.
“Saying things like, ‘I ate, then went home to do crunches so I could eat more’ — that could set someone else who already has disordered thinking off on a slippery slope.”
Hafers said supportive friendships were key to her own decision to seek treatment and recover from an eating disorder that had affected her since sophomore year of high school.
“As a friend, you can create a supportive, inclusive and blame-free environment,” she said. “My best friend accompanied me to my first appointment on campus, and came with me for subsequent therapy sessions.”
The panel also pointed to available resources like the online toolkit provided by the National Eating Disorder Association. On campus, students can seek help from the UM Counseling and Psychological Services.
Though acknowledging the difficulties inherent in overcoming eating disorders, the panel stressed that a complete recovery is possible.
“There is a commonly held belief that recovery from eating disorders isn’t possible — once you get it you are always going to have it. I saw therapists and doctors who told me that,” Koenig said. “Project Heal believes that full recovery, both physical and mental, is possible. It is possible, I have reached that point.”
LSA freshman Emma Kuske said she decided to attend the panel because of the many people in her social circle who suffer from eating disorders or have family histories of the disorder.
“I learned so much about the whole long-term recovery, the fact that full recovery is possible. As someone aware of the issue of eating disorders, I have mainly believed the whole ‘you learn to live with it,’ not that you can actually come out of it. I think that is a very empowering message — that full recovery is possible.”