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Someone inevitably ends up making a freshman-15 joke if college and changes in weight are brought up. The reality of the situation is that going off to college or even high school are major periods of transition that can allow unhealthy coping skills to flourish under the strain of too much stress and anxiety. Because of this, Dr. Brad Smith, MD, medical director of Eating Disorder Services at Rogers–Oconomowoc says it’s common to see eating disorders develop or relapse during freshman year.
College in particular can be an intensely stressful time, according to Dr. Smith, because it’s the first time kids are away from the watchful eyes of their parents and often aren’t seen until fall break. “Things can get bad pretty quickly,” Dr. Smith says.
Anorexia tends to be the most common eating disorder for students to develop when making a big transition, such as the start of school, and Dr. Smith says that data shows a spike in the rate of eating disorder development around ages 14 and 19.
There is a lot of stigma around eating disorders, with too many holding onto the perception that it’s a choice rather than an illness. Part of the problem is that people are not proactive enough when it comes to encouraging friends or family members to seek treatment. But Dr. Smith says that the idea that someone chose to develop an eating disorder couldn’t be further from reality.
“I still have not met anyone who woke up and decided they were going to have an eating disorder,” Dr. Smith says. “They started with a behavior that was well intended, but it got away from them. It may have even started out as healthy, but at some point, they start to do it more excessively and they no longer have control of it.”
What many don’t realize is that eating disorders have the highest risk of death and medical problems of all mental health issues. However, Dr. Smith says that eating disorders are much more treatable than what is publically perceived. “The majority of people who seek treatment will get good results,” he adds. “The general perception in the public is that these are untreatable, but that’s simply not the case.”
Eating disorder relapses are common for those starting college, even for those who had it under control in high school, but making arrangements before school starts can go a long way in keeping students on track for their first semester.
“The biggest risk is when there’s no accountability or awareness among anyone that’s checking in with the student,” Dr. Smith explains. “We don’t want people to go off to school assuming that everything will remain as stable as it would be at home. They should be proactive about setting up a treatment team if they’re still in treatment, and if they’re not, they should know how to get the treatment set up quickly if the need would arise.”
“In the vast majority of cases, I would recommend—at the very least—that they see a therapist who knows their history and can help them stay on track with the first semester transition,” Dr. Smith adds.
While social media tends to get mostly negative attention when it comes to mental health, image-sharing through networks like Snapchat or video calling can help families keep up with each other without meeting in person.
“Things like Facetime, Snapchat and Skype—or any other way that parents have to see their child at school—will likely allow them to pick up on problems earlier even if their student is not being forthcoming about the struggles that they’re having,” Dr. Smith says.
There is no replacement for a professional medical opinion, but it’s also wise to be educated on some of the eating disorder warning signs, both physical and behavioral. Dr. Smith suggests understanding the symptoms that the National Eating Disorders Association has identified, but here are a few common ones to keep an eye out for:
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