Oklahoma Christian University held events this past week in an effort to combat a life-threatening issue affecting hundreds of college students nationally.
The Oklahoma Christian counseling center, student life, student success and spiritual life teams collaborated to host the second annual Eating Disorders Awareness Week, in an effort to promote understanding and education on eating disorders.
According to the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association, eating disorders are steadily rising among college-age students, with 15 percent of women ages 15-24 claiming to struggle with an eating disorder and 91 percent of female college students admitting to controlling their weight through dieting.
Eating disorders are not limited to females. A study performed by Johnson & Connors revealed approximately one to seven percent of college males also wrestle with an eating disorder.
Oklahoma Christian counselor Brenda Gunter said eating disorders become more prevalent in transitory or stressful periods of life, such as college. However, eating disorders can develop during other stages of life as well.
“College students are in a transitional time in their lives, such as choosing a major and living away from home for the first time,” Gunter said. “However, many people develop eating disorders before college and often beyond the college years if treatment is not sought out.”
Gunter said eating disorders arise in various conditions, and sometimes the disorder is triggered by overwhelming life circumstances rather than weight.
“At the core of eating disorders is often a sense that one does not have control or power over their own life,” Gunter said. “Weight control becomes a substitute for controlling one’s own life of which they feel they do not have control.”
According to Gunter, red flags for eating disorders can include changes in weight, food restriction, obsessive exercise, obsession with weight or size, binging or purging and labeling food as “good” or “bad.” Gunter said it is important for students to recognize red flags among family and friends and encourage their loved ones to seek treatment.
Although two of the most commonly-known eating disorders are anorexia and bulimia, other forms of eating disorders such as binge eating and orthorexia also have the power to create severe health issues.
In order to raise awareness, freshman Sydni Lehr and senior Gabby Bridgeman addressed the student body during chapel by sharing their personal battles with anorexia. A video was shown throughout the week in chapel featuring Oklahoma Christian students to encourage those who struggle to seek help.
Lehr said one dangerous practice she sees among college students, specifically females, is dieting. According to Lehr, dieting is a slippery slope towards developing an eating disorder.
“The very first three letters of dieting are ‘die,’” Lehr said. “I don’t agree at all with dieting. I agree with healthy life choices, but I don’t think restricting yourself is ever a good idea. People don’t realize that it can actually lead to eating disorders.”
Lehr said she relates to the stress of trying to balance new responsibilities and life changes in college. Prior to coming to Oklahoma Christian last fall, Lehr said even though she already received treatment for her eating disorder, she still struggled.
“I was still terrified of the ‘freshman 15’ and even buffet-style [cafeteria] because you can lose control, and that was something hard for me,” Lehr said. “I was stressed out and didn’t want to think about having to stay on track with a meal plan.”
However, Lehr said since she became open with sharing her personal story, she has noticed a positive impact among Oklahoma Christian students.
“I’ve had people reach out to me and say, ‘I had no idea, I’m struggling too,’ so they felt like they could be more vulnerable and open because one of their fellow students had been open with them,” Lehr said.
A scale smash and candlelight vigil were held Thursday night to conclude the week. During the smash, students had the opportunity to destroy weight scales with a sledgehammer to remember their worth is not tied to a number.
Bridgeman said the scale smash empowered individuals to free themselves from societal standards and pressures.
“It’s a physical representation of literally destroying what we’re talking about,” Bridgeman said. “We’re talking about it in a mental perspective and an emotional perspective, but this is a physical representation of what we’re ultimately trying to get rid of.”
Bridgeman said this week she has encountered immense support being offered not only to her, but also to others who admitted their personal struggle. According to Bridgeman, it is important for those who are dealing with an eating disorder to seek help.
“There’s power in reaching out, and although it’s super terrifying to do so, it’s a connection that you can have with someone that really provides a lot of hope,” Bridgeman said. “You can’t do anything alone in this world, and especially not with eating disorders that really try to make you feel alone.”
For more information and resources on eating disorder treatment visit the Oklahoma Christian counseling services.