Walking to reduce eating disorders’ stigma

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Transitioning to college creates many new pressures – there are new classes, social expectations and relationships to navigate. For many students, there’s an added layer of difficulty: eating disorders.   

Eating disorders increaseScreen Shot 2016-04-12 at 1.39.38 PMd from 23 to 32 percent among college females and from 7.9 to 25 percent among college males, according to a 2013  study from NEDA, National Eating Disorders Association.

“I was never really around people who struggled with eating disorders, but it’s definitely more common now that I’m in college,” sophomore Marta Carreño Paredes said. “It’s shocking to see how common it is, yet also so unnoticed.”

It is for this reason UVM is holding its third NEDA walk for eating disorder awareness, beginning in front of the Royall Tyler Theatre Plaza at 10 a.m. April 17

The walk has raised $9,164 as of April 11, 61 percent of their $15,000 goal, according to the event’s website. Walkers can raise funds by participating individually or in teams.

“My perception of an eating disorder is that it is a terrible disease that is characterized by an abnormal relationship with food and eating in many different forms that slowly destroys your ability to function mentally, physically and emotionally,” sophomore Elena Smith said.

Senior Jessica Cohen coordinated this year’s walk.

“People forget that eating disorders are really serious mental illnesses and there’s a whole cognitive and behavioral factor aside from the food that’s really important and needs to get addressed,” Cohen said.

The stigma around mental health causes eating disorders to be “very isolating,” she said. “There’s a natural tendency to pull back from people.”

Anorexia is the deadliest psychiatric disorder, according to a March 2011 article in Psychology Today.

“Anxiety underlines a lot of eating disorders – the fear and feeling that something isn’t right so we often turn to these coping mechanisms,” said Annie Valentine, who specializes in mental health at LivingWell.

Eating disorders are often associated with conditions like depression or OCD, she said.

“It doesn’t just affect [Caucasian] women,” Valentine said. “It’s affecting men, our trans community, women of color and men of color.”

Cohen identified other common misconceptions surrounding eating disorders, like the expectation of being strictly thin. She explained how she struggled with bulimia despite staying at an average weight.

“When others find out that you have an eating disorder, they are appalled and no longer want to associate with you,” said sophomore Amanda Faulkner, one of the top fundraisers. “If this is the case, why would any struggling college student openly ask for help?”

“It restricts people from getting help because they feel that their eating disorder isn’t validated because they don’t look the way that society wants them to look,” Cohen said.

“We live in a world where the thin ideal is really perpetuated in the media and we’re taught that at a very young age,” she said.

“Raising awareness of body image and eating disorders can help people be a little more conscious of the comments they make and things they say to people,” Cohen said.

Eating disorders are complex becaus
e they involve both physical and mental components, Valentine said.

“Treatment is a multi-disciplinary approach,” she said. “You have a medical doctor, nutritionist, counselor and therapy because it needs to get looked at from all of those dimensions.”

“Treatment can be really hard, expensive and long so developing some of those – whether it’s intensive outpatient programs or inpatient programs that allow people to back away from all of the obligations and responsibilities that they have so they can put their health first,” Valentine said.

“Hopefully the walk can be another avenue to spread awareness and to talk about the issue and what is available for help. There’s not a lot going on in Vermont right now,” she said.

Valentine said the walk helps to spread awareness of resourced available on campus, and how friends can help friends that are struggling. She said it’s hard to know what to do or say, so these tools and techniques are important.

There are a number of resources on campus, including the Center for Health and Wellbeing’s Help Overcoming Problem Eating, or HOPE, program. Students may also seek assistance through the University’s Counseling and Psychiatry Services.

“The walk promotes a larger organization that’s trying to be in the forefront of providing those resources,” Valentine said.

Cohen has been involved with the NEDA Walk since it’s inception at UVM: she participated in the first walk in 2014, and spoke at last year’s event about her own struggle with disordered eating. When asked to coordinate this year’s march, Cohen said she didn’t hesitate to agree.

“I attended my first walk during a critical point in my own recovery and it was a nice way for me to see that people cared about this,” she said. “I felt a really strong sense of support and community.”

“During high school I was ruthlessly bullied, and developed a severe eating disorder,” Faulkner said. “After experiencing such a huge life changing event, I have made an effort to advocate for those who have or are suffering from the same condition.”

She said the walk “really creates a sense of belonging, which is amazing when an eating disorder can make you feel so isolated.”

Through the walk, Cohen said she found a surprising number of people dealing with eating disorders, and that most people she talked with at least knew someone struggling with this.

“It’s amazing how many people it affects, yet we don’t talk about it,” she said.

“Being vulnerable with people helps people then realize ‘maybe something’s going on with me and I’m going to reach out and get help because I’m not alone in this,’” Valentine said.

“When we talk about things like eating disorders that are stigmatized or silenced,” Cohen said, “it makes people feel much more connected with each other and empowered.”

Cohen had some advice for anyone struggling with an eating disorder:

“You’re not alone and it gets better,” she said. “It’s hard, but recovery’s really worth it.”

The walk provides a strong sense of support and community, Cohen said.

”Being in a space where everyone’s there for the same reason and a really good cause is really exciting,” Cohen said.

“My goal is to for people to go and realize they’re not alone and to feel safe,” she said.

Check in time for participants begins at 9 a.m. at the Royall Tyler Theatre. Teams and individuals alike can register online by April 15 or in person at the walk.