How much do you know about eating disorders? Have you or anybody close to you had experience with anorexia, bulimia or any other eating disorder? Could you talk about it?

This week sees the launch of a huge campaign by leading eating disorders charity B-eat to raise awareness across UK universities. Recent statistics by the charity have revealed that 32% of sufferers were diagnosed with an eating disorder after moving away to university, a worrying 69% had difficulties accessing treatment and a startling 52% said their university was not taking action to prevent eating disorders and support sufferers. And yet eating disorders still seem to be a very misunderstood and often taboo subject.

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We’ve all seen the “anorexic” portrayed on TV. One of the most well-known recent examples is the character Cassie from E4’s hit coming-of-age series Skins. Loveable though she may be, relatable she is not. She is portrayed in a way which is almost ridiculous; she doesn’t eat, therefore she is definitely mad and unless someone is floating about giggling and clearly insane then they most certainly can’t be suffering from an eating disorder.

This concerns me. If the media are going to continue portraying eating disorders as something that only happens to fictional TV characters with questionable sanity and A-list celebrities with jutting ribs on the front of gossip magazines then this misconception that it can’t happen to “normal” people is only going to persist. Yet according to The Royal College of Psychiatrists (2011), in a section on eating disorders in their landmark report entitled ‘Mental health of students in higher education’, said: “There is a relatively high prevalence of eating disorders in student populations…Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa are widely recognised in the student population.”

And don’t believe that it is only “white, middle-class young women” who only suffer, as is so often portrayed. As rightly pointed out by eating disorders pro-recovery website Something Fishy, “ANYONE can suffer from Anorexia or Bulimia….African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or white, women or men, rich to poor, from their teen years well into their fifties, there are sufferers from every age-bracket, class and culture.” The more this misconception is upheld, the less likely that people who don’t fit this criteria are to come forward and seek help.

With so much stigma surrounding the illness, I find it extremely worrying that a lot of sufferers feel as though they cannot talk about it for fear that they will be judged as stupid, insane or that their problems are simply too shameful to talk about. Thus a lot of sufferers battle on in silence, not knowing who to turn to with an illness that thrives on secrecy and isolation. And GPs are not always helpful. In South Wales especially, the eating disorders services are extremely difficult to access and often help isn’t readily available until the sufferer is already too ill to be responsive to most kinds of cognitive therapy. All this could be prevented much more effectively if only there was more education on the illness and greater knowledge of accessibility to student-led support groups (which are often far more approachable).

Swansea University itself has launched the Student Minds Support Group for sufferers of which is advertised as “a student led support group for those with eating disorders. It offers a confidential and friendly atmosphere for those who would like to talk about things in a safe environment with others who also suffer. It is not a counselling service, we just offer a place to talk, however we can signpost you to places that can help if you want that information.” Peer support groups can often be a lot less intimidating than going straight to the GP’s office and there is no worry of anybody judging you; it is a friendly network of people who are going through just the same as you.

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As part of the campaign, B-eat will be releasing a new leaflet to be distributed across UK universities and directly contacting student counselling services and unions. In addition to this, they will be promoting the campaign via Facebook and Twitter and posting a series of blogs written by students every day of the week on their website (http://www.b-eat.co.uk/get-help/online-community/beat-blog/). To get involved, like the B-eat group on Facebook and Twitter and be sure to use #edunicampaign to help raise awareness.

If you are a sufferer or are worried about someone you know suffering from an eating disorder, the Student Minds group runs every Monday 6-7pm in the Fulton House advice centre or you can contact the B-eat helpline on 0845 634 7650.

Eating disorders have amongst the highest mortality rate of any mental illness and 91% of students questioned by B-est agreed that an eating disorders awareness campaign aimed at students would be beneficial. This campaign is here to remind us that it’s okay to talk about it.

Talking saves lives.

by Natalie Ann Holborow

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