College and Eating Disorders: When Life is Just Too Much

by Melissa O’Neill, LCSW, Director of Clinical Operations

There are certain pivotal times in a young girl’s life. The advent of puberty is probably the most physically significant. And, transitioning from middle to high school tends to be the greatest social challenge.

Although there are often bumps along the road, most girls arrive at the first major destination in their lives—high school graduation—intact, physically and emotionally. For most, as change occurs around and in them, much remains consistent in their lives:  their home, parents, friends, even the family pet.

woman school

Then comes college.

Most young people enter their freshman year full of nervous anticipation, especially if they go away to school. Everything is new–environment, classes, schedules, living arrangements, peers and freedom.

Just as with growing up in general, most young women will adapt to these changes over time. Others will not. For those, the stress of all this newness proves too much.

Existing in a chaotic world without their usual support system nearby makes them prime candidates for developing an eating disorder, usually anorexia or bulimia. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, full-blown eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age.

At the heart of it, an eating disorder is a maladaptive method to cope with unpleasant emotions and establish a sense of control in life. Although a student cannot control the whims of a professor, the anti-social behavior of a roommate, or the late-night noise in the dorm, she can control what she eats.

Certain individuals are at an even higher risk for eating disorders. Girls who were perfectionistic in high school or those who previously dealt with an issue of a psychiatric nature such as social anxiety disorder or depression are extremely vulnerable.

Most parents are pleased and proud when their child enters college. They have raised their child well and successfully gotten them to this point of independence. But it is important to recognize the ongoing nature of parenting. Parents should remain in touch and be ever-mindful of how this new life is impacting their child emotionally.

What a daughter looks like is as important as what she says. Facetiming and the ubiquity of selfies can help parents keep track of physical appearance, which can prove a key indicator of an eating disorder.

If a disorder is suspected, the time to address it is immediately. The earlier an eating disorder is diagnosed and treated, the sooner a student can return to a meaningful, productive and healthy new life in college.

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