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Health experts are raising awareness about eating disorders as college students return to school

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Mental health specialists say students entering college this year may have more on their plate, compared to a typical high school to university transition. Many are raising awareness about how the increase of stress and shift in routine could impact those battling eating disorders.

"Launching students into collect for the first time when they have been remote or haven’t had the “normal” types of junior or senior year in high school, those anxieties are going to be even more significant," Dr. Melissa Spann, Chief Clinical Officer at Monte Nido an eating disorder treatment center, said, "If you don’t know anyone or you don’t feel comfortable if can lead to eating in isolation which is a really significant trigger," she said.

Rebecca Busman, Clinic Manger for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Service’s counseling center concurs, adding that there’s been an increase in eating disorders over the past year with data from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders showing 10-20% of female college students and 4-10% of males being affected.

“To say is this a cause and effect from COVID, research would suggest yeah there’s a pretty significant link there. One of the features of eating disorder development is that desire for control," Busman said.

While numbers show a larger impact on female college students, Spann explains that data often has blind spots, saying that over the past years subjects regarding eating disorders were "taboo" in male circles.

"Eating Disorders are caused by a complex combination of factors: genetic, biological, psychological, cultural, environmental the return to school," Spann said, "...We actually see that boys and men are struggling with food intake just as much."

The professionals are encouraging people to stay alert and watch for warning signs with those around them.

"It can look a little different for someone with anorexia vs someone with bulimia," Bussman said, "Someone with anorexia we might see more of isolation and change of personality. When you’re talking about someone with bulimia is likely related to a binge episode... Maybe they don’t eat with you but then they disappear after meal times."

Along with college counseling resources, Spann says it’s important for loved ones to make time for in-person check ins if they suspect something could be wrong.

"If they're potentially falling into a relapse, they're not going to say it; they're going to say 'I'm overwhelmed' or 'I'm stressed out...It’s really important for everyone to be aware how stressful this school year is going to be in general more than other years," Spann said.