BLACKSBURG, Va. – Many high school graduates look forward to the freedom of college life where they can escape curfew, house chores, and parents. For individuals struggling with eating disorders, the decrease in supervision can lead to an increase in dangerous habits.
Healthy Paths is a program at Virginia Tech designed to help individuals who are seriously challenged by eating disorders. Healthy Paths strives to keep these students in school while getting treatment. Alison Cross, assistant director of fitness and assessment with the Department of Recreational Sports, says this program offers a unique approach.
“We address several aspects of a students’ lifestyle that are involved when struggling with an eating disorder,” Cross said. “It is often unsuccessful to only address nutrition, exercise, or his or her medical health.”
A multidisciplinary team from the Department of Recreational Sports, Schiffert Health Center, and Cook Counseling Center helps individuals take control of the behavior and make steps toward a healthier lifestyle. Depending on the case, Services for Students with Disabilities and Campus Alcohol Abuse Prevention may also be involved. The program uses nutrition education, exercise education, medical screening, and group or individual counseling to address the underlying problems as the student works through recovery.
“For most people, [eating disorders] have become a pattern of life and it’s not easy to break. Recovery is a slow and complicated process,” said Richard Ferraro, assistant vice president of student affairs. “The Healthy Paths team can bring special and sustained assistance to persons who are confronting a variety of eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.”
Healthy Paths focuses on the short-term goals like modest weight gains for someone who was previously emaciated, or a declining frequency in binging and purging. The ultimate long-term goal is for participants to establish a healthy balance in their lives that will serve them well into the future.
“In essence, eating should once again become a pleasant experience that sustains the body, not an anxiety-filled ordeal that compromises one’s health or even existence,” Ferraro said.
Unhealthy weight control habits include excessive exercise, laxative abuse, starvation, and frequent binging and purging. The comprehensive approach of Healthy Paths allows individuals to get nutritional counseling, medical attention, therapy, and exercise guidance. Many times a student who is dealing with a serious eating disorder faces a number of challenges, which may not be addressed by one person.
“There may be severe restrictions of nutrients, which affects the body chemistry; violent purging, which can compromise several critical biological systems; or psychological causes or effect,” Ferraro said.
Through the partnerships with each center, the program can offer specialized services to address the problem areas. In 2010, the Department of Recreational Sports and the Cook Counseling Center referral program assisted 30 students with depression, anxiety, or eating disorders by planning exercise programs for the students.
“Eating disorders often co-occur with other anxiety or depressive disorders,” said Ellie Sturgis, a licensed clinical psychologist at Cook Counseling Center. “[The individuals] typically have issues of control, difficult family relations, or an unrealistic body image. Counseling is useful in addressing these core components of the eating disorder.”
When a person decides to get help, he or she can make an appointment with the case manager at Schiffert Health Center. Individuals can also go to the Cook Counseling Center to visit with a counselor.
“The first step is helping them to recognize that their behaviors are problematic,” Sturgis said. “Acceptance of the [eating disorder] is fundamental to working on the problem. Oftentimes, others recognize the eating or non-eating behavior, use of laxatives, or excessive exercise as a problem long before the individual with the disorder sees it.”
Other students can be a good resource for helping their friends in need. Charles Anderson, a licensed clinical psychologist who is the associate director of Cook Counseling and chairman for Healthy Paths, suggests the best way to approach the situation is for friends to gently express support and concern for the individual and help gather information.
“Helping a person with an eating disorder can be challenging and requires great sensitivity and care on the part of those who want to be helpful,” said Anderson. Anderson said those who want to help someone who might be struggling with an eating disorder could also contact Cook Counseling Center for a confidential consultation.
Eating Issues and Body Image Awareness Week runs through March 23 and offers stories, information, and advice about eating disorders. This week is dedicated to spreading information about eating disorders to help people who know someone or may be struggling themselves. “We encourage the dissemination of knowledge about eating disorders even for persons who do not have concerns for themselves,” Ferraro said. “They may have friends or associates in need of assistance.”
Those suffering from eating disorders usually try to keep their illness hidden, which can make it difficult to get the necessary assistance. Healthy Paths is a voluntary program, which encourages individuals to seek help when they feel ready. Cross says that for the program to be successful, the individuals have to want the help.
“We encourage progress but it is at their willingness and readiness,” Cross said. “Recovery from an eating disorder is not always a forward progressing journey, so having a team to help you through the ups and downs of the experience is important for success.”
There are about 12 to 14 students participating in the program in any given semester. “In the clear majority of cases, participants either stabilize or improve,” Ferraro said. “We hope to continue the good work and expect that, over time, the number of participants will increase in some degree.”
The Division of Student Affairs at Virginia Tech encompasses departments dedicated to providing a rich co-curricular experience and essential student services. Virtually every aspect of a student’s life outside the classroom is represented through the division’s departments.