Entering college right out of high school brings a host of new challenges for many students.
For some, the extreme change in lifestyle can be negative. Those who are unable to cope with the pressure run the risk of developing an eating disorder, a dangerous affliction that threatens their health and, in rare cases, can even be fatal.
Jennifer Lombardi, co-owner and executive director for the Summit Eating Disorders and Outreach Program in Sacramento, says freshmen are especially susceptible to disorders early in their college career.
“With college-age students, we tend to, in our culture, put a lot of pressure on competing and going away to a four-year school,” Lombardi said.
Students who strive to be at the top of the class can be affected the most, Lombardi said.
“When you have a person who is high-achieving and has done well academically, there is this expectation that you need to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way,” she said. “But, no one ever asks the questions if the person is emotionally ready for that.”
Lombardi believes that some students, even though they are successful during grade school, are not mentally prepared for what can be seen as the biggest change they have experienced in their lives so far.
The push for higher education comes from parents and society. It’s cultural, Lombardi said, and most people don’t question if their child is ready or not.
“What happens sometimes, is they get accepted to a prestigious four-year school, they get a scholarship and all the momentum behind them is such a positive thing, but no one talks openly or asks them the question, ‘Is it something you feel comfortable doing? Is it something you’re ready to do?’” Lombardi said.
Many high schools have college preparation courses, but they don’t offer discussions about emotional or psychological readiness.
In 1995, a survey taken at a collegiate level showed that 91 percent of female college students control their weight through dieting. Another survey in 2003 showed that 25 percent of female students used bingeing and purging in order to maintain a more desirable weight.
Lombardi believes that there should be a shift in education to offer instructional classes in high school that take a closer look at college readiness levels. Another method is involving parents and asking them to think about their child’s readiness level.
New college students are sometimes ill prepared for the immense life changes brought about by college. With their lives in flux, some may latch onto anything stable, even if it’s harmful.
“They’re living away from the home for the first time,” Lombardi said. “They’re in a different environment with new people and struggling with trying to find structure with their schedule and feeling comfortable. An eating disorder, in some ways, can feel like the most constant thing that they have in their life.
“In some ways it can become the one thing they can fixate on.”
Untreated eating disorders can strengthen over time and, if left alone, there can be tragic consequences.
“Eating disorders unfortunately have the highest mortality rates of any mental illness,” Lombardi said. “Upwards of 10 percent of people die.”
The statistics of mortality rate of eating disorders varies among groups, due to the fact that the deaths are not reported as caused by malnutrition, Lombardi said.
In many cases, the cause of death from an eating disorder is due to heart or organ failure.
Tikesha Leslie-Jones, post-doctoral fellow at the Student Health Center at Fresno State, believes it is the students’ attitudes that can influence a mental disorder.
“Some students that go to universities have perfectionistic attitudes and that, together with the pressures of trying to achieve academically, can sometimes lead students that have compulsive addictive behavior that, those who suffer from this illness, use as a coping mechanism for that stress,” Leslie-Jones said.
Students leaving home will also be faced with having to provide for themselves. This freedom to eat can become dangerous if it isn’t controlled. Not shockingly, ramen for three meals in a day is not healthy.
“For college students, this is the first time they have control of what they eat and how much they eat,” she said. “It doesn’t always start as an eating disorder, but it can start as disordered eating: eating bad food infrequently, eating bad food a lot, not eating, forgetting to eat. Disordered eating can show up in a variety of ways.”
Recently, Leslie-Jones has noticed that some of her patients fell into an eating disorder after an illness, which should cause concern with the current uprising of the flu.
The flu can suppress appetites, and the student falls into that routine of eating less and less. Soon the student begins to lose weight, and it becomes a full-fledged eating disorder.
Facebook and other social media sites are another factor in the way students perceive themselves and others, Leslie-Jones said.
“Social media does play a role in your perception of what is beautiful and what is acceptable, and it can feed into an eating disorder,” she said. “You get reinforced when you lose weight. Nobody says, ‘Oh, you gained 20 pounds.’ No one gets excited about that.”
Within the month, the Student Health Center will begin a new group therapy session created by Leslie-Jones, tentatively titled the Eating Disorders Support Group.
Leslie-Jones said that though sessions haven’t begun, students who believe they are suffering from an eating disorder, or any other disorder, shouldn’t hesitate to visit the health center.
“Students are under a lot of distress when they walk in these doors for any disorder, but I don’t want people to wait too long,” she said. “There’s support here. There’s help here, even for those who are recovering and need assistance, and we’re here for that as well.”