Expanding the Conversation About Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are illnesses that poison minds, bodies, and relationships. They are vicious and stubborn, and most of us will be touched in some way by one in the course of our lifetimes. However, recovery is possible.
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I've spent a lot of time talking with college students since founding Active Minds more than 10 years ago. That's a big part of my job -- figuring out what the average student believes and experiences with regard to mental health. Through those conversations, I've noticed a great deal of isolation among those who struggle with or support loved ones with eating disorders. So, with Eating Disorder Awareness Week beginning Feb. 23, what better time than now to talk about why?

College students often have a very specific notion of the kind of people dealing with eating disorders -- they picture privileged, white women, most likely struggling with anorexia or bulimia and trying to stuff themselves into the ideal shape and size.

Sure, our culture provides a framework into which people with eating disorders often like to fit themselves. But there's so much more to this issue. Let's expand the conversation.

We sometimes drown out the reality that there is a wide range of triggers for the development of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are among the most complex and persistent mental health disorders in the United States, and especially among college students. We often hear about anorexia and bulimia. Less often do we hear of people with binge eating disorder or disordered eating.

Eating disorders are both mental health and physical health issues. They often co-occur with mental health disorders like depression and anxiety, but they also lead to physical side effects including dehydration, dangerously high or low blood pressure, acid reflux disorder, hair and bone loss, and risk of heart attack. This double threat makes eating disorders the most fatal among all mental health disorders.

These issues often manifest as much more than trying to fit into a certain size, striving for more muscle definition, or not exercising proper nutritional habits. For most suffering with these disorders, it's about taking control of something when other things in life feel like they are spiraling out of control. Or proving that they can succeed at fitting that ideal when they believe they are failing in everything else. Or improving their athletic performance. Or punishing themselves for some significant personal trauma they wish they could erase.

These problems transcend race, gender, and socioeconomic status.

So, now that we know these issues are much more expansive than thought, what is the bottom line on eating disorders among college students? In short, they impact all of us. Those of us who struggle with eating disorders battle severely negative thought patterns that often come to control their lives. These patterns make people believe they are not good enough; they promote obsessions and compulsions that can control the routines of someone's day; and they encourage folks to close themselves off to the very people who can help them.

For those of us who know someone who is struggling with an eating disorder, we feel pain, too. We feel the rejection of friends and family who can't help but listen to those horrible thoughts while we unsuccessfully attempt to replace them with positive ones. We struggle to find the right things to say; to find the magic thought that will unlock their desire to get help. Or, when they have sought help, we do our best to understand and support them however we can, but we can never truly know what kind of demons they are fighting.

Eating disorders are illnesses that poison minds, bodies, and relationships. They are vicious and stubborn, and most of us will be touched in some way by one in the course of our lifetimes. However, recovery is possible.

For those of you who are struggling, please know that it can get better. When you choose to seek help, you are not failing or admitting defeat, you are taking the first step toward success. You are choosing life over your illness. You are opening the door to being loved again, and most importantly, to loving yourself. I know it is hard, and it may take a while longer for you to decide to take that step, but when you do, you will have support and encouragement of family, friends, and Active Minds and our 450 chapters across the country. We are cheering you on. We are praising your efforts -- one moment at a time.

For those who are supporting your family member or friend on this journey, we know it is difficult. We know there are no right answers and that it can be frustrating. Don't forget to ask for support for yourself, too, and take comfort in knowing that you don't have to be perfect. You just need to be there. Let them know that you are ready to move forward when they are. Try not to focus on their results but instead, praise their process. Most importantly, continue to be just exactly who you are because that is who they need you to be, now and always.

There are many facets of eating disorders, and some of them scare us because of their complexities and consequences. But we're never going to truly create a society that's free of all eating disorders until we recognize the many forms. This week, let's look forward with hope in knowing that it is okay for all of us to seek help and lend some support because we are all moving down this road together.

If you're interested in learning more about eating disorders and how to help a loved one who may be struggling, Active Minds and Beyond OCD have made an action kit available for download at If you are ready to begin your road to recovery today, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.