McGill’s Eating Disorder Program (EDP) has gotten off the ground over the past year and a half, and will host its first series of Eating Disorder Awareness Week events from February 1-7.
While the causes of eating disorders are complex and varied, societal pressures are usually involved. University is a place where these can come to a head; a Princeton study found that 53 per cent of patients with lifelong eating disorders say they first developed unhealthy attitudes toward food during university.
“The nature of an eating disorder is that it’s very secretive and not talked about,” said Randi Fogelbaum, coordinator of McGill’s EDP. That’s partially why program staff are excited about this year’s Awareness Week – the more word gets out, the more they’ll be able to reach prospective patients who might not have realized they have a disorder or that help is available.
Many students come to university with an eating disorder, said Vanessa Matic, the program nurse. According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, eating disorders are the third most common chronic illness among adolescent girls, occurring most commonly in girls between 14 and 25 years of age.
“Very often that’s when students leave their home and family….That’s when their eating disorder gets worse because they’re not in a structured family environment with structured meals,” said Valerie Fedorowicz, the program psychiatrist. Samah Fares, the program nutritionist, said they see many students turn to food for comfort when faced with the stresses of university, and that peer pressure and body issues can be particularly acute in a university environment.
“It’s a disorder that has a big cultural component. It’s not just students or this environment, it’s a pressure from all society to be thin, [the message that] that’s what’s valued for women,” said Fedorowicz. “Students at this age come to university wanting to recreate this whole circle of relationships and friends,” she added. For students with eating disorders, she said, making that happen is viewed through the lens of being thin. Being more well-liked and successful can become tied to that goal. Fighting narrow attitudes of beauty and what women’s bodies should look like is one way to combat the development of eating disorders.
Though university students are vulnerable to eating disorders, EDP staff said that there are very few eating disorder programs at Canadian universities.
McGill’s program takes a multidisciplinary team approach that provides treatment from a number of angles, with a dietician, nurse, psychiatrist, nutritionist, and therapists on staff. The team meets to discuss and assess each new case and speaks with the student afterward to share their findings. They do four new assessments every week, and are currently seeing 50 ongoing patients. They have seen about 100 over the past year.
The program offers a variety of entry points for new patients, including psychoeducation groups and meal support groups. Psychoeducation groups combine information sessions about eating disorders with aspects of a support group. In meal groups, students have a group dinner with a nutritionist followed by a discussion session, where they debrief the experience and discuss things like food groups and healthy portions. “It’s to help them have a healthy relationship with food,” said Fares. “Usually people with eating disorders have lots of anxiety around mealtime. It’s to help them feel more comfortable.”
The team is planning a friends and family education session for March 11, on how to best provide support.
Events planned for Awareness Week include film screenings in residences. All McGill students are welcome. Contact the EDP at 514-398-1050 or check mcgill.ca/mentalhealth/edp for more information.