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'It's supposed to be the best four years of your life:' managing an eating disorder in college is hard

Co-chairs of Embody Carolina, Sarah Leck (left) and Briannen Arey, check the registration for a training session on dealing with eating disorders.
Co-chairs of Embody Carolina, Sarah Leck (left) and Briannen Arey, check the registration for a training session on dealing with eating disorders.

Junior Regan Buchanan said she struggled with disordered eating in high school, but it didn’t progress into a full-blown eating disorder until her first year at UNC.

“There’s a false narrative around college — that you’re supposed to get here and it’s supposed to be the best four years of your life,” Buchanan said. “I think social media really contributes to that, as well. Everyone is trying to put on this fake face, but in reality, I think we all were scared shitless when we first came to school.”

UNC graduate Colleen Daly co-founded Embody Carolina, a student organization focused on training allies to support people with eating disorders. This week is National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Daly said her eating disorder began when she took lifetime fitness as a first-year.

“The amount that people talk about the freshman 15 as the worst possible thing that could happen to you in your first year of college, it’s horrible,” Daly said. “And then there’s added stress — new people, new social structures. Lots of homework, school stress, social stress, and that just spirals out of control. And, it was my first year of college. Who would know my eating patterns?”

Daly isn’t alone. Buchanan said her feelings of isolation on UNC’s campus created a situation where her disorder worsened.

“I think that mental disorders, eating disorders — they thrive on loneliness,” she said. “I just always thought people would think I was a freak, I was just petrified of anyone knowing. And I think that actually contributes to feeling super lonely, because you feel inside that no one really knows who you really are as a person.”

Antonia Hartley, clinical nutrition specialist for Campus Health Services, said other employees of Campus Health are trained to screen for symptoms and signs of eating disorders in clients, and they refer students to her if they encounter someone who needs help.

She said if a student comes to her, the first thing she does is get them set up with a medical doctor and a counselor — but Counseling and Psychological Services isn’t equipped to help students with eating disorders.

“CAPS is a bridge for people to find eating disorder services in the community,” Hartley said. “Because prevalence is so high, I don’t know any universities who are providing on-campus treatment for eating disorders. Most clients need long-term care.”

Kelli Wood, the registered dietitian for Carolina Dining Services, said CDS staff are trained to look for signs of eating disorders in students using the dining halls.

“They’ll notify a manager, or they’ll notify me, but they’re never to approach that person and talk about it with them,” Wood said.

Wood said in her year and a half working for CDS, staff noticed one such student, and a few students have reached out to her online to ask for help. She said in that situation, she gives the student Hartley’s information and follows through to make sure students actually get in contact with her.

Sarah Leck, co-chairperson of Embody Carolina, said UNC students have priority for treatment at the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, which is located within UNC Hospitals.

Leck said students are lucky to have so many resources on campus, but follow-through can be a problem.

Daly was upset with the way she was treated at CAPS.

“CAPS is so overburdened that they can’t take these cases,” Daly said. “They juggled me around to two different people and I had to tell my story twice. Telling your story is emotionally and physically draining, and doing that twice and getting no help is horrible.”

She said the counseling center she visited during graduate school at Northwestern University was what she wished UNC’s had been.

“Northwestern made calls for me, they said, ‘This is the outpatient center that’ll work best for you. We’ll look up insurance for you.’ That’s what CAPS should be doing,” Daly said.

Junior Teresa Ceballos, who is studying abroad in Spain this semester, said being away from campus culture has helped her recovery.

“I’ve realized that there’s so much more to life,” Ceballos said. “I’m not going to make myself get up early to go for a run every day. If I get some extra sleep, maybe I can stay out a little later in the center of town with my friends, maybe I can see this sight or that sight.”

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Buchanan said sharing her story is part of her recovery.

“Every time you tell someone, it’s like it’s not on you anymore, it’s like they have a little piece of the burden,” Buchanan said. “I think we should have a better campus culture around mental health.”