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news: struggling eating disorder clinic forced to shut doors

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Title/Topic: Struggling Eating Disorder Clinic Forced to Shut Doors
Posted On: 11/13/2008
Nov 13 2008 (The Yale Herald) – The financial crisis that has our country tightening its belt also caused the conspicuously quiet closing of the Yale Center for Eating and Weight Disorders over the summer. Kathryn Henderson, director of the YCEWD, blamed the closing on financial difficulties. While YCEWD was not funded by Yale University, the center provided specialized treatment for Yale students dealing with eating-related problems. The existence of resources for the treatment of eating disorders is extremely important at Yale, a place where intense pressure and competition can lead students to cope by adopting self-destructive behaviors.

Dr. Rajita Sinha is director of the Yale Stress Center, which researches the relationship between stress and addictive behaviors. She says that research shows a definite relationship between high levels of stress and the risk of developing an eating disorder. “We know some connections are there between stress and changes in our hormone status that actually increase desire for food,” she said. “You know, all of us are probably guilty of having a really hard day, and reaching for ice cream in the face of it. We’ve all done that.” The typical Yalie, writing papers in between sports and a cappella rehearsal, can certainly relate.

Dr. Lorraine Siggins, chief psychiatrist for the Yale Health Plan (YHP), estimates that while about 3 percent of students who come to the Mental Health and Counseling department are treated for the recognized disorders of anorexia, bulimia, or binge eating, around 30 percent of students are suffering from some type of disordered eating. YHP director Paul Genecin estimated that “a good many more” students on campus are struggling with eating disorders, compared to the number that actually seek help from YHP’s physical and mental services.

Walden Peer Counseling, a student-run hotline, and Eating Concerns Hotline and Outreach (ECHO), also provide support for students. ECHO member Kristin Baxivanos, JE ’10, described the organization as “a vehicle for help,” directing students to available resources. When asked why students might turn to a peer group rather than to medical resources on Hillhouse, Baxivanos said, “Like any mental illness, it’s a very vulnerable state of being, and anonymity might help in being the first step in dealing with it rather than walking to YUHS.” Baxivanos continued, “Also the idea [is] that we’re peers, we’re also students. It’s sort of satisfying that we have this sort of trust on campus, that you can come to your peers.”

While Yale may be a place of trust, Baxivanos believes that it is also a breeding ground for self-doubt and distorted body image. Students must deal with unspoken pressure from peers to conform to a certain image. “If you look at the data that has characterized people with eating disorders as Type A, as upper-middle-class, as whiteit’s really apparent that that is the mainstream population at Yale,” said Baxivanos, adding that while the correlation between disordered eating and perfectionism is a relationship both “overused and oversimplified,” pressure to conform to an idealized image can drive many students toward disordered eating. “The culture at Yale reinforces this idea of thinness as a sign of upward mobility, or dedication, and somehow, as an extension of intellectualism.”

The environment that encourages disordered eating may be stronger than Yale’s ability to combat the problem. One student, who wished to remain anonymous, turned to Yale Undergraduate Health Services during her freshman year while suffering from both bulimia and anorexia, but ultimately decided to seek inpatient treatment elsewhere after being disappointed with the University’s services. She explained that the problem was partly due to a lack of specialized care, and partly to the difficulty of committing to recovery while maintaining her hectic college lifesuggesting that not only can stress encourage the onset of disordered eating, but can make treating those disorders very difficult.

Speaking from her position as an advocate, Baxivanos said that Yale could be doing even more to help students with disordered eating. Ultimately, though, she conceded that the solution isn’t likely to come from Yale. “I think it’s not going to be a movement from these institutions; it should be a change in the ideologies of students, which speaks to a much larger cultural issue,” she said. “That change in ideologies should be one that is less focused on the body, and more focused on a life of pleasure and experience, free from those ideas that tell us to be small and bony and angular.” Until that change takes place, though, it can only be hoped that University resources will remain open to students.

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