When Erica* carries her tray into the eating area of Bishop Mountain Hall residence cafeteria (BMH), she feels scrutinized by seated students. She hates the food, which she describes as baked, fried, oily, and salty, but most of all she hates that other students watch her eat it.
“When I go to the cafeteria, I feel like I’m on display. [Other students] stare at you. When you get up to leave, they take inventory of how much you’ve consumed. I try to be better than them. To deny more than they can,” she said.
Five years ago, Erica was diagnosed with perfection anxiety disorder and anorexia nervosa. Her condition improved greatly with the support of her parents and psychologist before she came to McGill, and now she blames its recent flare-up on her living conditions as a first-year student in an Upper Residence.
“I was okay at home. It was a more controllable environment, and there wasn’t the X-factor of 14 18-year-olds living with me on a floor,” she said.
According to Molson Hall floor fellow Anna Lambert – a registered nurse and upper-year student whose job is to help foster a sense of community in residence – there is at least one student suffering from an eating disorder at every McGill residence. In her two years as a floor fellow, Lambert has seen and heard of many students with eating disorders whose symptoms have worsened upon enrolling in residence.
“Usually they had a more supportive environment at home; parents and friends know their history and recognize their eating disorder,” said Lambert. “First year university is a fresh start, but [eating disorders] become more severe.”
Lambert also noticed a large percentage of students in residence halls with disordered eating habits, which encompasses all potentially dangerous eating patterns. She described students picking at meager portions of the cafeteria food and working out or fasting the day after binge drinking as common patterns.
On her wall in her single-room dorm, Erica charts the days she has gone without eating. Her fridge is stocked with take-away lunches and dinners from the BMH cafeteria, a compulsion she described as food hoarding.
Susan Campbell, the manager of Food Services at BMH, explained that their menu caters to the majority of students by offering a variety of balanced food choices.
But both Campbell and BMH’s staff dietician Monique Lauzon said that faced with so many choices, many students gain weight while living in residence.
“Students sometimes tend to overeat, students gain a little weight and that can maybe lead to compulsions,” Campbell said.
Working with a facilities that are 30-years-old, Campbell was looking forward to a renovation next year that will expand the steam table so a wider variety of hot entrees can be served.
Lambert made a presentation to all the floor fellows in August about recognizing disordered eating patterns. She urged the group to be more observant by eating with students and making referrals to the appropriate health professionals when an unhealthy pattern is identified.
But Lambert said floor fellows and others have been without appropriate referral resources as the Eating Disorder unit at McGill Mental Health Service (MMHS) Clinic was non-operational for the past year and a half.
When Erica approached MMHS in early September with a referral from both her hometown general practitioner and psychologist they requested an additional note from her psychiatrist before scheduling an appointment. Erica will sit in her first psychiatry appointment next week, more than two months since she walked into the clinic.
“I went [to MMHS] because I can’t do four years of not eating. Studying becomes near impossible. You eat so little that sometimes that you can’t think,” Erica said.
According to Denise Rochon, who is in charge of the MMHS eating disorder unit, they are in the process of restarting operations, but faced a rocky rebirth this year with its staff dietician on maternity leave.
Lauzon felt external psychiatric help was crucial to helping students with eating disorders.
“We are alerted by the floor fellows or the dons that a certain student is loosing a lot of weight and our red flag goes up. My implication [with those cases] is very limited because very often these students don’t want to come see us, unless they want to seek help they are more or less in denial,” Lauzon said.
In her clinical work with first years at MMHS, Rochon noticed a high level of competitiveness over body perfection.
“It is possible [eating disorders] will develop associated with a competition over marks – perfectionists are always looking at someone whose body is closer to perfection than one’s own – and the residence environment tends to encourage that,” she said, adding that McGill attracts perfectionists given its high acceptance standards for prospective students.
“I can study my ass off and still fail an exam, but I can control my eating. It becomes a game,” Erica said.
Erica has made a deal with other first years to skip dessert and work out three times a week to slim down before returning home for Christmas vacation.
Dr. Howard Steiger, director of the eating disorder program at the Montreal Douglas Mental Health University Institute, pointed to studies that establish a link between the exacerbation or development of eating disorders and dormitory living.
“Eating disorders are activated at times of stress or when a person’s sense of control is challenged,” Steiger said. “Some students moving into dorms are not quite prepared for the transition to more independent living and becoming responsible for structuring one’s own eating for the first time.”
Steiger also cited high stress levels associated with academic performance, the discomfort of weight gain caused by binge drinking and heavy cafeteria food, competition among students for body perfection, and pressure to integrate into a new social group as potential factors that could cause disordered eating among first years in residence.
*Name has been changed