After having a heart attack due to malnutrition her freshman year of college, Rackham student Marna Clowney finally realized that she needed help. She has since recovered from anorexia.
“For what I put my body through, it’s a miracle I’m still here,” Clowney said.
Clowney, who is black, said it was difficult for her to find help because the medical community tends to believe that minorities with eating disorders are rare.
“It took (the doctors) two years to change to a diagnosis that would link to the right support,” she said, adding that doctors did not want to classify her as anorexic or bulimic.
Clowney said therapists were not supportive and told her that she would never get better saying things like “anorexia shrank your brain so small you can’t recover.”
After struggling with an eating disorder for eight years, Clowney finally found a therapist and nutritionist who was able to help.
“I think I went through it to be able to help people,” Clowney said.
Clowney, who is a member of Students Promoting Education, Awareness, and Knowledge about Eating Disorders, a student group at the University, launched a nonprofit website in May that provides peer support and resources for people who are recovering from eating disorders. Clowney stressed how important peer support was to recovery, saying, “Out of (the 983 members of the website), I’d say 150 of them have done a 360-degree turnaround since getting on the (message) board.”
“One can read these posts and see how far they’ve come,” she added.
For example, one woman joined the site in May and began reading the posts. The woman only recently began posting messages, saying she finally told her husband about her eating disorder.
The website is moderated 24 hours a day to ensure that the posting board is safe from Internet stalkers and posts using words that might trigger a relapse into past behavior. A member can also chat with two moderators about his or her concerns, and a moderator might individually e-mail a member if necessary.
In addition, Clowney said next semester S.P.E.A.K. hopes to do more activism and work with Counseling and Psychological Services and University Health Services on campus.
“There needs to be a professional in a peer support group. … A student support group doesn’t have enough resources.”
Eating disorders and eating issues are common at the University. According to the CAPS website, “three out of four college women struggle with some type of disordered eating behavior or thought patterns.” Men also run a risk of developing an eating disorder, especially due to portrayals of men in the media. Victoria Hays, the associate director of CAPS, said that one out of ten people with eating disorders are men.
The University works to treat eating disorders throughout the community, Hays said. When treating a patient, a counselor at CAPS who specializes in eating disorders, a clinician and the nutritionist a UHS work together.
“The best treatment for eating disorders is a multi-disciplinary treatment team to address the psychological, nutritional and physical aspects of eating disorders,” Hays said.
Marilyn Nakamoto, registered dietitian at the Nutrition Clinic, explained that she talks with patients about healthy eating, such as eating all foods in moderation. Nakamoto makes healthy meal plans with patients and helps them understand that some foods are safe to eat.
There are several other organizations on campus that provide support and education. The Coalition for Action Regarding Eating and Body Image Issues is another group aiming to promote awareness about eating issues on campus.
“The great thing about CARE is how many different groups around campus are represented,” said Ruth Blackburn, the nutritionist specialist for Residential Dining Services.
The members, include the athletic department, the Office of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Affairs, Office of Greek Life, Multi-Ethnic Student Affairs, Housing and the Center for the Education of Women. She said the idea is for each group to educate among their members.
CARE’s educational work culminates with Love Every Body Week, a project on campus featuring workshops, free giveaways and guest speakers. Running Feb. 15 to 18, the eating disorder awareness week “highlights issues and educates people about the community resources,” said Aliyah Masudi, program assistant at Health Promotion and Community Services at UHS. As a campus resource for eating disorders and body image issues, Masudi presents educational programs in the University community, such as in residence halls and the Greek system.
Health educators at Health Promotion and Community Services also formed Peers Utilizing Leadership Skills for Education, a group of students in residence halls who are trained about health issues and where to refer their peers. According to the PULSE manual, the goal of the group is “to promote wellness among residence hall students and to help students achieve balance with their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health.”
Because people such as dining services staff and resident advisors interact with students, University Housing is also involved in educating students about eating disorders. Housing staff meets with UHS and CAPS staff to learn how to look for signs of eating disorders, and RAs try to get to know everyone as well as they can in case any issues arise. Greg Merritt, assistant director of Residence Education, explained that if an RA learned that people in a hall were talking about dieting, then Housing could arrange for a speaker from UHS to talk to them.
Although many people at the University are working hard to spread awareness about eating disorders, they are still a serious and prevalent problem that can result in death.
But for survivors like Clowney, program success is measured one person at a time, which is why she reaches out to as many people as possible. She said she once gave a seminar at a local middle school, and three girls wanted to talk to her afterward. Having struggled with an eating disorder since the age of nine, Clowney said, “It’s hard to see a little 12-year-old girl walking down the same path you took.”