Heading to college for the first time or returning to campus after break can be extremely difficult for many students. With increased autonomy, new relationships, academic stress and being far from home, it is no wonder that cases of reported mental health issues have reached an all-time high on college campuses.
In fact, NEDA reported that 20% of college students have or previously had an eating disorder like anorexia, bulimia, or binge-eating disorder. This supports previous research that found fully diagnosable eating disorders begin between the ages of 18 and 21 years of age.
With all that being said, college is a great opportunity to form lifelong friendships, expand your knowledge on new and exciting things, learn how to live more independently and simply further grow as an individual.
If you’re currently working through an eating disorder, or have a history with one, here are some helpful ways to make your college experience as successful as possible:
- Reflect – If you’re heading back to school, think about what it looked like when you were last on campus. What went well? What were the challenges? What will be the same and what will be different this year with regards to living situation, stress levels, social life, etc.? Take an honest walk down memory lane – give yourself credit for things you did well and take inventory of things you might want to work with your support team to do differently.
- Anticipate – Use all that thoughtful reflection to anticipate challenges you’re likely to face in the coming year. Will you have to prepare your own food? Will you be living with new roommates? Will you have a heavy academic load and a part time job? Have your friends graduated and moved away? Consider triggers you’ve identified in the past and how you can manage them differently moving forward. Moving from a residence hall with a meal plan to an apartment with increased independence is a big transition even without an eating disorder, so odds are that transitions like this will be particularly challenging if you’re relatively early in your recovery.
- Do Your Homework – Whether you’re starting your first year of college, transferring to a new school or going back to campus with a few more months of maturity and recovery under your belt, it’s important to know what awaits. Where is the nearest dining hall and what are the options? How much added walking will you do to get to and from classes, and how will you account for that if you’re working to restore weight?
- Build Support – Students who know about the resources available to them are far more likely to seek help. Discover these resources through your college health center, counseling center, nutrition services, and athlete support services, as well as what mental health and eating disorder support programming might be provided by residence life, Greek life, and student organizations like Active Minds. Also, take a look at the local community for support groups and outpatient providers that may have more expertise with eating disorders. Of course, it is also important to identify friends and mentors at school with whom you can be honest, be accountable to and from whom you can seek guidance.
- Schedule Yourself for Success – College schedules are often hectic balancing acts that involve being in many different places and with different people and expectations over the course of each day. Don’t let your eating disorder dictate your schedule! To the degree that you can, arrange your classes with space for meal and snack breaks, give yourself downtime and prioritize your ongoing treatment needs. If you’re going to be attending a program, support group or multiple outpatient appointments each week, you need to make sure you’ve built the time for them into your schedule.
- Prioritize Self-Care – No one is better prepared to make the coming year healthy and successful than you! College students are notorious for “burning the candle at both ends” and setting themselves up for unnecessary amounts of stress. If you’re early in recovery, it’s critical to take care of your body and mind to reduce the vulnerabilities that come with being overly tired, stressed or overwhelmed. As hard as it is to make time for yourself on the busiest of days, the healthy part of you can probably agree that it’s key to success. Chances are you don’t have the time or money for weekly massages or weekend vacations, but you can probably find time to listen to music, journal before bed, practice mindfulness, and spend time with people who make you laugh and feel good about yourself.
Remember that recovery is possible, and while there can be many triggers on campus, there is also a built-in network of support resources like RAs, Health / Counseling centers, activities and organizations to keep you connected to peers. Plus, your home treatment/support team is only a phone or Skype call away.
Of course, we are always here to help in your recovery journey.
Emily Slager, M.Ed., LMHC, is director of Walden’s Hickory Drive Clinic. She is responsible for providing clinical, administrative and fiscal oversight as well as development for the clinic. Previously, she was director of residential, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs for adolescents and adults at Walden’s Waltham location. In that role, she oversaw all aspects of these programs including administrative, fiscal and clinical management. Formerly, she was a clinician on Walden’s inpatient eating disorder and psychiatric units. Ms. Slager earned her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Boston College. Her professional interests include the development of eating disorders in athletes and in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.