By Katie Crooks – [email protected] – Contributing writer
UNC Asheville students may not realize that someone they know, love or even just share a class with could have an eating disorder.
The National Institute of Mental Health officials said they predict 19 years old as the average age-of-onset for eating disorders, approximately the age of a college freshman or sophomore.
“College is an opportunistic environment to provide eating disorder education, identification and outreach for students and faculty on campus,” said Heather Wingert, who works for Treatment, Healing and Education Center for Disordered Eating of Western North Carolina
According to university officials, the average age of a UNCA freshman is 18.7 years old.
“In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men have experienced a significant eating disorder at some time in their life,” Wingert said. “In fact, anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.”
The National Institute of Mental Health defines eating disorders as an illness that adversely affects everyday diet or causes body image distress. Common eating disorders include, but are not restricted to, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating.
“As an eating disorder slowly evolves in a person’s life, other things that were once important in the person’s life begin to fade into the background. Increased obsessions, drive for perfection, negative thinking, anxiety and rigidity can take over,” Wingert said.
Research from the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders said those between the ages of 12 and 25 make up 95 percent of people with eating disorders. According to university officials, UNCA students average to be approximately 22 years old. The demographic most at risk for having and eating disorder composes the majority of UNCA’s student body.
“About one-third of the people we serve are attending surrounding colleges and universities in the area, including UNC Asheville,” said Wingert, who works with T.H.E. Center’s support groups.
Deanna Christoforou, a junior at UNCA, said when a friend suffers from an eating disorder, it can be difficult to address.
“The most I did was mention they should change their routine,” Christoforou said. “I don’t think she thought she had a problem. She never thought, ‘Oh, I have an eating disorder.’”
An ANDA statistic reports 25 percent of college-age women use purging to control their weight. If this statistic held true for UNCA’s student body, it would mean more than 500 female students have bulimia nervosa.
Wingert said she hopes to see a university-wide, peer-led education and detection program, like UNC’s Embody Carolina, come to Asheville.
“This is a necessary bridge between professional treatment available in the community and the students at college campuses,” Wingert said.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services cites culture, families, life changes, personality traits and biology as common causes of eating disorders.
“There’s an enormous amount of peer pressure to fit in, and I know that adds to it,” said Maura Cullen, a diversity lecturer who earned her doctorate in social justice and diversity education from the University of Massachusetts. “They have to get help, and we have to pretend we don’t see it. A lot of us just don’t know what to do, and what I’m saying is you have got to do something.”
Though the idea that eating disorders exclusively target women still prevails, Wingert quickly asserts that anyone can suffer from an eating disorder.
“We are starting to see an increase in our community with men seeking support and treatment for an eating disorder. We are also seeing an increase in the LGTQ population,” Wingert said. “A lack of understanding and stigma of eating disorders is still pervasive. Often the disorders are assumed to be affecting only young, white, middle-to-upper class females.”
The National Eating Disorder Association will hold its inaugural Asheville themed NEDA Walk, Save a Life. The walk takes place at Carrier Park, 500 Amboy Road on Nov. 2 at 10 a.m. Registration begins at 9 a.m. Proceeds from the walk will benefit NEDA’s education and advocacy programs. Participating in the walk costs $15 for students, $25 for adults, $10 for children under 12 and $5 per pet.