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news: uc san diego’s eating disorder program is helping students

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Title/Topic: UC San Diego’s Eating Disorder Program is Helping Students
Posted On: 11/19/2007
San Diego, Nov 19 2007 (UCSD Guardian) – Late-night snacking, Ben and Jerry’s by the pint and three pizzas for $15 at Domino’s ­ all of these are contributing factors to the infamous “freshman 15.” But a little extra weight is only one aspect of what makes college life so hard. Challenging course loads, peer pressure and being away from home for the first time all add to the college student’s daunting life. With all the activities, parties and new people to meet and impress, there’s little to wonder why a teenager might get self-conscious.

“With eating disorders, the whole problem is body image,” said Tim Hong, a Thurgood Marshall College alumnus and political science major. “But I think it’s more than that. I think it has to do with the control factor. With an eating disorder, you have control over at least one aspect of your life, even when all the other things are out of control.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, eating disorders and purging behaviors occur in as many as 25 percent of college-age women and as many as 10 percent of college-age men. Without treatment, 20 percent of people suffering from eating disorders will die from the effects.

“Bulimia often starts in the early 20s,” said Elise Curry, program manager at the UCSD Eating Disorder Clinic. “Whenever you have a bunch of 20-somethings together, that’s the population where you are going to see a significant amount of people with bulimia. You start to see anorexia around 14, and if that goes untreated sometimes it can lead to bulimia. Someone starts off as an anorexic, they never get treatment, go off to college and their disorder just gets worse. There aren’t very many obstacles for an eating disorder in college.”

There are two main types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Bulimia is diagnosed when person eats a significant amount of food (binges) and then attempts to stop weight gain by either vomiting (purging) or using a laxative. Anorexia occurs in people who fear gaining weight so intensely that they avoid food and stop eating altogether.

Female students often find themselves surrounded by people who are smaller and skinnier than they are. For a lot of these students, college is the first time that they can starve themselves without anyone else noticing.

Male students have a similar problem. They see people who have more muscle, and work out twice a day to build the perfect body. Hong developed bulimic tendencies while at UCSD by overexercising to the point that his body started to give out.

“I was running 20 to 30 miles every week,” Hong said. “I got to the point where I had to work out and then I started throwing up afterward, which complicated things. In one summer I lost XX pounds*. I went from XXX to XXX*. I used to lift a lot of weights, so it was like going from one extreme to the other.”

Hong exercised to the point that his knee cartilage wore down heavily, and his doctors told him to stop abusing his body.

“But I couldn’t stop running,” Hong said. “And even if I did stop, I would swim for three or four miles every day instead. When I figured out that I needed to get help, I actually vomited blood up. It wasn’t a ton but it wasn’t a little either. It was right before Christmas, and my chest hurt for about a week. Every time I breathed, every time I laughed, coughed, anything, my chest would hurt. That’s when I realized I could be doing permanent damage.”

Hong sought help through a friend in the psychiatry program who knew a therapist at the UCSD Eating Disorder Clinic. With her referral, Hong started the program to recover.

About two years ago, UCSD recruited Curry to start a new on-campus eating disorder program. She came from a four-and-a-half-year service at the Sharp HealthCare, one of the leading medical service providers in San Diego County, where she also created an eating disorder program from the ground up.

“We opened our doors here about two years ago,” she said. “We started with two patients and we haven’t been closed since. We have a lot of UCSD students, and people from the community. People with anorexia and bulimia are beginning to find us, but I don’t think people on campus really know, so I’m looking forward to having that.”

Apart from the eating disorder program, UCSD students have a few other options. Psychological and Counseling Services provide free therapy for students. They also have a body-image discussion group that meets weekly to discuss problems that college students face with accepting their bodies. Both options deal with students who have slightly less severe problems. But if a student purges more than twice a day, psychological services will refer them to the eating disorder program.

“We have people from across the country [at the program] who couldn’t make it in college,” Curry said. “It completely interrupts their college experience. But if they are UCSD students then they might be able to come here and stay in school, and that’s what we try to do with them. Our program meets only in the afternoon and evening hours. A lot of UCSD students try to put their classes around this, so hopefully they can get through the program and still go to school. Sometimes they have to take a smaller load, but it usually works out.”

The eating disorder program has a 12-week session, and accepts about 10 patients per session. The patients go through sequences of group therapy, meet with a dietician and a therapist, practice meditation and goal-setting, eat group meals and do family therapy, among other things.

Psychiatry professor and Eating Disorders Program Director Walter Kaye has done research that indicates there may be a gene linked to anorexia.

“We try to cut down [the behaviors] slowly,” Curry said. “It doesn’t help with bulimia to say to quit now. They’ve been doing it for a long time, and they aren’t just going to stop. It takes about 20 different skills to replace one eating disorder. That’s how powerful these things are.”

After the program, patients are given a discharge plan and are encouraged to meet with a therapist for at least a year. According to Curry, the average recovery time for people suffering from eating disorders is about seven years. Of the people who seek treatment, about a third completely recover, while another third relapse and the rest don’t recover at all.

Patients in the eating disorder program at UCSD do find comfort in one another, and keep each other accountable even after the program is over. Hong is still involved with his aftercare group, and he has learned from his experiences.

“Looks aren’t everything they’re cracked up to be,” Hong said. “I’ve been in both positions. I’ve been really fat, and I’ve been really skinny. I’ve been normal too. I think the reason that guys do it is to attract girls, but girls really don’t care that much about it as guys think they do. People need to learn how to become cool with themselves. Those are the people who are happy. There are tons of people that I know that are ripped and everything who aren’t happy people. I’ve learned that I would rather just be happy.”


* Numbers removed by Pale Reflections

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