A 2015 report commissioned by eating disorder charity Beat, showed that 725,000 people are affected by an eating disorder in the UK. The research also found that eating disorders typically begin in early adulthood; around age 16-17 for anorexia nervosa, and 18-19 for bulimia. It is also around this age that many young people are either considering a university degree, or have just embarked on their first year of study. For anyone dealing with a pre-existing health condition, the pressures associated with university, such as moving out from the family home, managing finances, and keeping up with a challenging study schedule, can be especially off-putting. It is important that dedicated support is made available for these students, to ensure that they feel able to cope with the demands of university life, and to manage their health.
We spoke to Chris Hood from eating disorder charity SYEDA (South Yorkshire Eating Disorder Association), to find out more about their work with universities in Sheffield, and the measures that are in place for students with an eating disorder.
For a number of years, SYEDA have run an eating disorder support group at the University of Sheffield. The group, known as Biteback, came into existence after a particular women’s officer in the Students' Union approached SYEDA. She had become aware of a level of unmet need among students, and a lack of confidence within this group when it came to accessing support services. Shortly thereafter, Sheffield Hallam University contacted the charity about offering a similar service for their students. Support groups and drop-in sessions are now available for students at both universities. In return, the universities help publicise SYEDA's work and give the charity access to rooms on campus in which to conduct these sessions.
Biteback support groups involve user-led discussions with trained facilitators, both professionals and volunteers, to ensure inclusivity and adherence to an agreed set of ground rules. Past topics have included portion sizes, mindfulness, goal planning, nutrition, self-esteem and exercising appropriately, and discussions last between 60 and 90 minutes. In addition, students can attend drop-in sessions — these take the form of a pre-booked 30 minute one-to-one consultation. The universities also signpost students to SYEDA's other services such as occupational and talking therapies, and discussion groups. University of Sheffield student, Sophie, describes the impact of the support she received from SYEDA, helping her on the road to recovery:
"I could write far more pages then this and still never fully convey the gratitude that I feel towards the woman who treated me. As I wrote in my card to her when I was discharged, she didn’t just make me well again, she made me me again.
To anyone who is currently struggling with weight problems, I would beg you to seek help. It is not easy, but it is worth it."
You can read more about Sophie's experience, and her advice for seeking help for an eating disorder at university, here, or watch her video account below:
Unfortunately, not all universities have specific support measures in place for students with an eating disorder. If you are current or prospective students who is struggling, SYEDA's Chris suggests that you: "ask for a GP to undertake a full physical examination, including blood tests. Look at the BEAT website for any local support services. Finally, where possible, involve family and friends as they may be able to offer more support than anticipated." The student mental health charity Student Minds also offers advice on negotiating your student journey whilst dealing with an eating disorder, with links to further support.
For universities looking for better ways to support students who may be dealing with an eating disorder, Chris recommends the following: "invest in training for welfare/wellbeing staff and fitness instructors, and university sports clubs etc. You should also establish protocols with main GP practices, and identify criteria for accessing NHS support. Where applicable, utilise third sector expertise when offering and developing support."
SYEDA also offer training for young people and the professionals who work with them. This is tailored to the needs of the organisation and the age of the people concerned. 'Body Confidence' is SYEDA's most popular workshop; it helps participants to improve their self-esteem and equips them with the confidence and knowledge to also support their peers. The charity's training for professionals focuses on understanding various eating disorders, how to offer effective support, and the available options for signposting to other support.
Note: ProtectED accreditation requires universities to support students by develop working partnerships with relevant external charities, organisations and experts. The relationship between SYEDA and the universities in Sheffield is cited as good practice in the Student Wellbeing and Mental Health Instrument; indicator 3.4.2 asks universities to develop an agreed formal process for referring students with mental health difficulties from university support services to external support services.