MHC Addresses Eating Disorders in Many Ways

With as many as eight million people suffering from eating disorders worldwide and a campus visit by Peggy Claude-Pierre, author of The Secret Language of Eating Disorders, set for October 20, campus awareness of women's eating disorders may be at an all-time high.

The College offers coordinated prevention, outreach, and treatment programs to help students combat the many faces of this complex emotional and physical problem. Davina Miller, director of the Health Center's Counseling Services, says that "some studies show that perhaps 30 percent of college-age women have eating disorders. We assume that here at the College we are at the national average, with a 2 to 5 percent incidence of anorexia and a 12- to 15-percent incidence of bulimia." Senior Kate Flocken, an active member of the student group Help Overcome Problematic Eating (HOPE), will conduct a campus survey this year to collect data on the level and types of eating disorders among MHC students. Eating disorders span the spectrum from anorexia to compulsive overeating and obesity.

Life-threatening anorexia and bulimia are typically seen most often in white, affluent women. However, according to both Miller and the Health Center's consulting nutritionist Arlene Thomson, more women of color are being seen and treated for these diseases on campus than in the past. Thomson estimates that they see about fifteen students a year with full-blown eating disorders.

Many students also have less extreme eating issues such as self-restricted eating or fat phobia, which are not life threatening but reflect anxiety and control concerns. "A sign of a healthy individual is someone who enjoys eating and looks forward to it. Food is so basic to our sense of well-being and daily functioning," says Thomson, pointing out that food issues affect health and mental well-being. And Head Athletic Trainer Ellen Perrella says she "guesses that there's not a team or group of students here that doesn't have at least one woman with disordered eating and food issues."

Along with Perrella, Miller, and others from the Five Colleges, Thomson participates in an Eating Disorders Task Force, which coproduced the 1997 video Recovering Bodies with Northampton's Media Education Foundation. Perrella had all fall athletic teams view and discuss the video, in which young adults in recovery from eating disorders talk about their experiences. Coaches also receive training in how to recognize symptoms of eating disorders and refer students for treatment.

Students who are concerned about their relationship with food and self-image can seek advice and assistance at the Health Center or contact the peer group HOPE. "You can schedule an appointment with a nurse practitioner, with Dr. Maureen Millea, nutritionist Thomson, or at the Counseling Center, which is starting up a new group for women with eating issues," Miller explains. "You should be able to take eating more or less for granted, and we are here to help achieve that."