Eaton: The freshman 15, meal skipping and more: How college culture cultivates disordered eating habits

Eating disorders are too prevalent to be left out of mental health dialogue on campus.

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Emily Eaton

How old were you when you first heard of the “freshman 15”? This harmful myth is just one of many insidious ways college culture primes students nationwide for disordered eating habits. Approximately 40% of incoming first-year college students across the United States will develop or already have an unhealthy relationship with eating. The prevalence of eating disorders has only increased over time. College creates an environment in which meal skipping and “pulling trig” are normalized in the name of binge drinking. It is critical that we discuss where the University of Minnesota falls short in catering to students’ mental health needs, especially when it comes to eating disorders. Students with severe eating disorders are redirected to third-party organizations, while many others are left unaware of just how destructive their habits are.

Students seeking treatment at Boynton Health are frequently referred to Melrose Center or another third-party organization. This relatively new practice began in 2015, according to Dr. Jennifer Krzmarzick, interim chief medical officer at Boynton Health. Because anorexia has the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric illness, there are times when patients require specialized attention Boynton can’t adequately provide. Most of Boynton’s services are subsidized by the student services fee, but the third-party referral creates the possibility of financial insecurity for some students. In previous years, a grant partnership between Melrose and Boynton covered out-of-pocket expenses. Krzmarzick said that because of COVID-19, Boynton was unable to contribute to that grant partnership this year.

Receiving treatment at a third-party location, while necessary at times, solidifies a second barrier: transportation and accessibility. Despite having the Minnesota Center for Eating Disorders Research housed on campus, the closest treatment center affiliated with the University is roughly 10 minutes away by car. For the large majority of carless students, this trip could take upwards of 30 minutes, one way, on public transportation. While this is better than not having these services available to students at all, a mental health issue that is so prevalent among students deserves greater attention.

Higher education loves to talk about mental health, but too often eating disorders are left out of that dialogue. There are ways for the University to raise awareness and provide support for students without bringing treatment fully on campus. Keeping dining halls open an extra hour or two on weekends would encourage students to eat before going out and help combat the harmful rhetoric of “saving calories.” Incoming students already partake in several informational courses. Using that space to educate students on disordered eating habits would give students the tools to recognize unhealthy behaviors in themselves and their peers. Small changes like these could keep a mild fear of the “freshman 15” from escalating drastically.

On the day of her inauguration, President Gabel made it clear that she would prioritize student mental health. Her administration has now been in place for over a year. What, if anything, has changed?