National Eating Disorders Association

Results of College Survey Show Unmet Need for Campus Resources for Eating Disorders

Susie Roman

As we kick off National Eating Disorders Awareness Week 2013, we are excited to announce the release of the Collegiate Survey Project, Eating Disorders on the College Campus: A National Survey of Programs and Resources. The study was launched in response to the volume of requests NEDA receives for information about eating disorder-related services on campuses, as the rate of eating disorders among college students has risen to 10 to 20 percent of women and four to 10 percent of men. Approved by Pace University’s Institutional Review Board, this study finds that greater funding and resources are needed on college campuses to educate, screen and treat students struggling with eating disorders.

In the study, respondents (campus service provider representatives) at 165 participating colleges and universities  provided information on eating disorder-related programs and services, including: campus screening and awareness events; educational programs and workshops; counseling services; academic classes or programs; residence life and peer advisor programs; athlete services; and informational resources, such as articles, websites and pamphlets.

According to the survey, access to education, screenings, and mental health resources are important for getting individuals to seek proper treatment and support, or be able to detect and refer other students who may be struggling. The increased pressure and stress of school and leaving home may lead to mental health problems among college students and a greater need for campus services.  This is also a period of development in which disordered eating is likely to arise, resurface or worsen for many young men and women.  Full-blown eating disorders typically begin between 18 and 21 years of age (Hudson, 2007). Given that eating disorders are the mental illness with the highest mortality rate (Arcelus, 2011), early detection, intervention and treatment is extremely important and gives an individual the best chance of recovery. 

Help-seeking decreases significantly when people are not aware of the options available to them (Ben-Porath, 2002; Friedman, 2009; Nolen-Hoeksema, 2006; Gould, 2007), and survey results indicate that there is a need for increased education and training for those in the Greek system, peer advisors, resident advisors, fitness instructors, and staff on campus who are in a position to help students identify the resources they need. Unfortunately, only 34% stated their campus has a peer advisor to refer students, and of those who do have such an advisor, 93.3% stated the advisor is very/extremely (73.3%) or somewhat (20%) important.

Therapy and counseling for students are offered by the majority of the schools represented, however there is still a gap between how important campus providers consider these resources, and availability. 68.6% of respondents said they have monthly/weekly/daily availability of an on staff counselor/psychologist/psychiatrist with an eating disorder specialty, and of those, 96.3% stated it is very/extremely important. Educational information was among the most commonly cited resources available, and was evaluated to be very/extremely important, with web–based or health service options the most important. Overall, 73 percent of the colleges surveyed offer NEDAwareness Week activities and 94.1 percent of all respondents stated it is somewhat (36.1 percent) or very/extremely (58 percent) important.

Another important finding was that screenings for eating disorders on campus are seriously lacking, especially for athletes. 87% of respondents said it is important to offer screenings, yet only 22.4% of those surveyed offer year–round screening opportunities. While 100 percent of the respondents that offer education and screenings for athletes stated it is very/extremely important, only 2.5 percent of schools surveyed offer year-round prevention and education for athletes and only 22 percent offer screenings and referrals. This NEDAwareness Week, NEDA is excited to announce that we have partnered with Screening for Mental Health, Inc., to launch, offering a free anonymous online screening for individuals to gauge their risk of an eating disorder. There are two screenings available, one for college students, and a standard screening for other demographics.

The biggest barriers cited to meeting the needs on campus were lack of time and funding to train mental health service providers to specialize in treating eating disorders, and to implement education/outreach/prevention programming. Lynn Grefe, NEDA President & CEO, stated, “Eating disorders are potentially life-threatening and the steady increase of prevalence on our campuses is alarming. Colleges providing the resources and support necessary for students affected by eating disorders should be applauded. However, we have also learned that more can and should be done on many campuses to serve this population. We hope that many more colleges will step up to the plate and learn from this study sooner rather than later. Taking action about eating disorders on college campuses for early intervention and support could be key to a healthy future for many students.”

To read the full study results, download the directory of college programs and services, or connect with colleagues involved in eating disorder-related program and service development/implementation on campus, visit the Collegiate Survey Project homepage.