Exeposé Issue 624 (20 May 2014) and Exeposé News online (21 May 2014) – Front page investigation, in collaboration with members of the Exeposé senior editorial team Harrison Jones, Gemma Joyce, Emily Leahy and Vanessa Tracey
As medical experts and former sufferers warn of the “huge burden” eating disorders are placing on Exeter students, an Exeposé survey has suggested widespread concern amongst the student population about the problem.
Of the 306 students surveyed, over two thirds answered that they were concerned about a friend’s eating habits, with more than half of these students suspecting someone they know at the University of suffering from anorexia or bulimia.
Doctor Vic Mohan, a GP at the Student Health Centre, said: “We are very experienced at supporting students suffering from eating disorders…We know that large numbers of students suffer from an eating disorder and even more of them are affected by witnessing the impact of the eating disorder on their friends and housemates.”
Dr Mohan stressed that it was “difficult to know exactly how many” students suffer from a related disorder, which covers a far broader spectrum than just anorexia and bulimia, but added: “As well as having serious and potentially long term effects on physical health, eating disorders can impact on every aspect of a student’s life, from performance, to mood, to social life, to relationships.”
Of the survey’s respondents, 44 per cent said that they would not know where to go if they needed support relating to an eating disorder, implying that many students struggle to access the University’s facilities.
Colum McGuire, NUS Vice President Welfare, highlighted fears surrounding eating disorders amongst university students nationwide, stating: “Many students don’t feel like they are getting adequate support from their institutions. NUS is concerned about cuts to services that support students facing these challenges, particularly around poor referrals to outside services, and whether those services themselves actually have adequate resources to help students.”
A former sufferer suggested that the problem may be more prominent at Exeter than elsewhere. The anonymous student said: “It’s rife here. It’s nothing to be ashamed of but there’s a stigma attached to it and people are too afraid to talk about mental health, because at Exeter there’s so much pressure to act in a certain way. I don’t know if it’s because there’s not much diversity here, but there does seem to be a certain ‘look’ – perhaps because we’re sporty – that people try and conform too.”
Former and current Presidents of BodySoc, Lani Landsman and Laura Payten, also expressed concern at the social pressure Exeter students are under. They believe that Exeter’s sports’ culture dominates a social “hierarchy,” implying – as former sufferers have – that both sexes and not just girls, are affected by eating disorders.
They argue that BodySoc relies on its promotion of “making people feel safe and comfortable” when exercising, stating, “we want healthiness, not obsessive fitness.” The pair also noted the difficulties of balancing intervention if they are concerned about particular members, and being too intrusive, suggesting that there is not enough awareness about where students can go and who they can talk to.
Representatives of the Sports Park told Exeposé that despite their efforts to promote mental and physical wellbeing, they also feel there is confusion and a lack of awareness about the support services available at the University.
All members of the gym staff have undergone training sessions with the Wellbeing Centre in an attempt to create a safer environment.
Paul Mouland, Sport and Wellness Development Officer argues that the Sports Park encourages a culture of athleticism, saying it is “positive” to see so many students in Exeter take part in sport.
However, an anonymous former sufferer disputed this statement, claiming that the gym does not provide any form of health check and that some members who “clearly have an eating disorder are still exercising non-stop,” without intervention.
They also reiterated concerns about the pressure upon University-wide services as a whole, adding: “wellbeing is way overstretched, the Uni need to expand that.”
Another student and former sufferer said: “It isn’t the girls dieting in order to squeeze into that dress for TP, it’s the ones that may have struggles back home, traumas in their past, the people who strive for those perfect grades and may be too scared to walk into a club. It’s not about your body, it’s about your mind.”
In the words of those we spoke to, a sport-centric “hierarchical” social structure, a lack of diversity and a pressure to strive for perfection at Exeter seem to contribute to a culture of thinness – with a lack of awareness for where to turn when things get out of control.
Chris Rootkin, VP Welfare, said: “I’m always available to provide support if anyone feels they are suffering with an eating disorder. Wellbeing are fantastic and I know both the Guild and the University are committed to supporting students in need.”
Any students who are concerned by the issues raised in this article can contact: The Student Health Centre (01392 676606); The Wellbeing Centre (01392 72 4381) and Beat (08456341414).