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Eating Disorders A Weighty Issue On College Campuses

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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When they go off to college, most young women dread gaining weight -- commonly known as the "freshman 15." Many students are going to the other extreme, losing weight through anorexia or bulimia.

For some college students, success is not a goal -- it is expected. And with high expectations comes pressure to be perfect.

"I was away from home for the first time. I felt like I needed to control something," said Jessie Tucker Mitchell.

Mitchell, now a first grade teacher, remembers how controlling her diet was everything during college.

"You almost feel something similar to a runner's high. When you go without eating, you feel good about yourself and it's odd," she said.

The topic is not easy for Mitchell to talk about it, but she said people need to realize how serious eating disorders are.

"It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's something to seek help for because there are girls out there killing themselves," she said.

"Eating disorders, more so than any medical or psychiatric illness, are shrouded in this cloak of secrecy," said Dr. Susan Girdler of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Psychiatry.

Another college student, who wished to remain anonymous, admits to having an eating disorder.

"About a month into college, the way I started dealing with it was controlling my eating and I started to exercise compulsively," she said. "If one thing went off in the day, if something slipped and messed with that schedule or my regimen of exercise or eating, it just ruined my whole day," she said.

Statistics show that one out of every four women on college campuses have some sort of eating disorder.

With 7,000 female undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill, that would mean around 1,700 female students would statistically have an eating disorder.

Experts said there is something about higher learning that increases that risk.

Science offers some clues. Studies suggest that some women may be genetically predisposed to eating disorders.

Girdler has found that women with eating disorders respond abnormally to stress.

"I think, indeed, that the pressure that can exist on the college campus can set the stage for vulnerable individuals to develop eating disorders," she said. "You do not have to live with an eating disorder. You can put it behind you. And that's the news to get out there."

Registered dietitian Lisa Eberhart counsels students at North Carolina State University.

"Seeing me is free. [Students] can come as often as they like. Usually it's once a week," she said.

Most universities have similar programs; however, asking for help is not an easy decision.

"It's like giving up all this control," said a student, "saying: 'OK, I'm going to make changes, and it's not going to be the way I want it to be. It's not going to be my routine anymore.'"

Often, a close friend or family member steps in to help.

"If you really feel like it's a serious issue, you should definitely approach the person," Eberhart said.

That is how one student got help. She said she never expects to be cured, but is on her way to recovery.

"I'm the happiest I've ever been in college," she said. "It's kind of sad in a way, because I think the first two or three years of college were just I was depressed and I was trying to get recovered from this eating disorder."

Mitchell dealt with her eating disorder without professional help. Last spring, she taught a class on eating disorders at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"I wanted people to realize what a problem this is. That hey, I'm one of these people and there's nothing strange about me. I'm just a normal student who's happened to have gone through this. And I want you to realize there's a lot more out there," Mitchell said.

Mitchell said once that happens, maybe more women will realize it is OK to ask for help.

Experts recommend students see a physician, a therapist and a nutritionist. Most visits can coordinated through counseling services or student health centers.

Help is also available outside campus.

This summer, UNC will open a comprehensive eating disorder program that will offer inpatient care. It will be the first program of its kind in the region.


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