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Health providers at University Health Services (UHS) have been working to implement a more cohesive approach to eating disorder treatment for students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Kathryn O’Connell is the Eating Disorder Services Coordinator at UHS and says a multidisciplinary team approach to treatment is the best way to help students struggling with eating disorders. To accomplish that goal, O’Connell has implemented a system involving all the medical and mental health providers a student sees to treat an eating disorder from many different perspectives at once.
“Eating disorders are generally born out of a need for coping with something unrelated to food,” O’Connell says. “The relationship with food can become a way to establish a sense of comfort and control. It can be used as a way to numb out challenging feelings.”
Because of this, O’Connell believes eating disorders need to be treated more thoroughly than just talking about an individual’s relationship with food.
A common misconception about eating disorders is that they only impact certain types of people. In reality, eating disorders affect people of all races, ethnicities, genders, and incomes.
O’Connell says most people don’t realize this because eating disorders thrive in secrecy, and social stigmas prevent honest conversations about eating disorders that can often take place with other health concerns.
“That’s why showing up [at UHS medical or mental health services] takes so much courage, and it’s a huge step in the right direction,” O’Connell says.
Whatever stressor lies behind the individual’s unhealthy relationship with food can vary greatly, and it can be related to aspects of an individual’s identity, including one’s race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other identifier.
For example, some people of color may not feel the same pressures and stressors as many white people. This can pose a problem for health providers if they treat eating disorders the same way in each individual.
A Virginia Commonwealth University study published in December found that Asian American women in particular “experience body dissatisfaction through mechanisms that have not been examined in detail,” while the mechanisms often found behind eating disorders in white women have been.
By combining a broad, multidisciplinary approach to eating disorder treatment and recovery with a team of caring, culturally competent healthcare providers, O’Connell and others at UHS help students of all identities and backgrounds recover from their eating disorder—and not anyone else’s.
Eating disorders are as diverse as those who suffer from them, and no two individuals will adopt the same behaviors and warning signs. For some, an unhealthy relationship with food involves purging, the self-induction of vomiting, sometimes after meals. Purging behaviors also include any unhealthy amounts of exercise.
What it comes down to, O’Connell says, is the amount of time an individual spends worrying about their diet, weight, or shape, and the extent to which that interferes with their daily life.
For students seeking help with an eating disorder, a UHS drop-in access consultation a great first step to assess their needs. Students may come alone or with friends to work with a provider to figure out what services on campus and in the community are best for that individual.
O’Connell encourages students who are concerned about a friend to approach the topic openly and with flexibility, and above all to be caring and respectful of their friend.
Written by Andrew Hahn, UHS Web and Communications Assistant