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Systems of support

McGill provides a network of help for a spectrum of eating disorders

According to the website of McGill’s Eating Disorder Program, statistics have indicated that university life may be “a prime breeding ground for eating disorders.”

In a Princeton University study, “scientists found that among patients with life-long eating disorder problems, 53  per cent say that their disorders first emerged during college.”

It appears that disordered eating, even if not a full-fledged diagnosable eating disorder, is a strikingly common phenomenon in university. In order to raise awareness about the nature of eating pathologies, the Eating Disorder Program, part of Mental Health Services, is hosting events at McGill until February 11 as part of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week.

Randi Fogelbaum, director and coordinator of the program, explained some of these statistics. “It’s a huge adaptation to move from your parents house to university, to have to be responsible for yourself, have to be independent…there’s so much change that there is a higher rate of eating disorders among university students.”

Even though they’re quite common, eating disorders come in a variety of forms. The most widely publicized are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.

According to the department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Ohio State University, the symptoms of anorexia nervosa include the refusal to maintain weight “at or above a minimally normal weight for height and age,” severe fear of weight gain, distorted body image, and “in females, loss of three consecutive menstrual periods and decreased interest in sexual desire.”

Bulimia nervosa, meanwhile, is characterized by a wider variety of types of binging and purging. These behaviours include everything from vomiting to excessive exercise. Binge eating disorder involves eating more often and in greater speed and quantity than is healthy.

One of the lesser publicized, but most commonly-diagnosed eating disorders at McGill, Fogelbaum noted, is classified as “eating disorder not otherwise specified.” This diagnosis arose to fill a gap left by the descriptions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. “Sometimes people have a lot of the criteria of either anorexia or bulimia but can’t be diagnosed with one or the other specifically.”

Body image may be just one of the contributing factors to the development of eating disorders, but it’s certainly the most well known. There have been and continue to be several initiatives to unveil the current mass cultural tendency toward perfection, including the 2008 film America the Beautiful, which will be screened today at New Rez.

More recently, similar research has been conducted on the Western obsession with weight and body image. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found thinner women get paid far more than either “average-size” or heavier women. Researchers Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable believe, according to the Washington Post, “that much of the problem is the result of subconscious decisions based on entrenched social stereotypes.” The study cited that this discrepancy earned thinner women “about $16,000 more a year, on average.”

In any case, Fogelbaum asserted that, “Usually, there’s an interaction between genetics, your personality type, and then environmental factors. It’s not just about the body image.”

Luckily for McGill students, the resources offered at McGill are unlike any other university in Canada, according to Fogelbaum. “Our program here is the only one in Canada like this…I researched about 60 universities across Canada, and [this] is the only program for eating disorders specifically with a full multidisciplinary treatment team and groups.”

McGill’s Eating Disorder Program website outlines the various services offered, including multidisciplinary assessments (where you meet with a psychiatrist, nurse, and dietician, and when you can receive personalized feedback and treatment plans), individual psychotherapy, nutritional counselling, and medical follow-ups. There are also several types of support groups, from psycho-educational groups to meal support.

Unfortunately, Fogelbaum explained, “the nature of eating disorders is very secretive because there’s a lot of shame around it, so often people don’t want others to know that they’re suffering from it.”

“By the time somebody comes to seek help, its usually been the domino effect,” she said, meaning patients feel treatment is the only remaining option. However, she also emphasized that willingly seeking treatment is crucial part to the recovery process.

According to Fogelbaum, the program’s office receives many calls from concerned friends and family, but this in itself is not enough to initiate treatment. Patients “need to want the help in order to take the help.” The best thing anyone can do who knows someone with a potential eating disorder is “to be honest…to be caring.”

Though statistics  point toward most eating disorders developing in university, she explained that this isn’t necessarily all bad. “The positive thing is that because there are so many transitions, [university is] also a really good time to get treatment for your eating disorder and it’s a really good time for students to be able to create change and be able to succeed with treatment.” It seems that with a program centred on awareness and multidisciplinary treatment, this is especially true at McGill.