The student lifestyle is often characterised by prioritising your budget for beer over bread, for living on a diet of microwave meals and Pot Noodle, for trying to convince yourself, and your flatmates, that you can make a can of beans and some biscuits into three days of dinners. Students are known for their bad eating habits; baked beans have become a beacon for the university experience. It’s not surprising really – we don’t have 9 to 5 schedules, or lunch breaks, or regular wages. We keep strange hours and small change. We don’t have parents to put food on the table, or at least stock the fridge. We only have ourselves to decide that cereal for the third time in a day is a bad decision, instead of a detox. Which makes it dangerously easy for people to fall through the gaps. In the student culture of make do and make pasta, again, eating disorders can be hard to spot.
Of course, eating disorders, like most mental illnesses, are hard to spot in all situations. Anorexia and bulimia – or any disorder that doesn’t fit neatly into these buzzword definitions – are secretive. Whether hidden behind a lie about a skipped meal, a bathroom door, or a smile and the words ‘I’m fine’, these disorders are supremely good at concealing themselves. A few pounds lost can go unnoticed; a shrinking dress size can be admired or envied. Magazine stands herald new diets and detoxes, billboards thrust jutting hipbones into the streets, red carpets and catwalks and television shows parade lean limbs on all sides – an obsession with our bodies and what we put into them is expected and encouraged. Pursuing a flat stomach is acceptable and crash diets are rammed down our throats. Someone with an eating disorder can hide their illness from the world better than ever before. A compulsion can easily wear the mask of a Master Cleanse. Anorexia and bulimia, those enemies that are held closer than friends, can sneak under the radar of our binge and purge culture.
Yet, if eating disorders are generally difficult to spot, until a critical point stares you straight in the face, they, and anyone living with them, become even more elusive in a university environment. Notoriously prevalent among young people – and certainly not only young women – universities can already be viewed as arenas for eating disorders to work their claws. Arrivals at university are presented with a world of freedom, independence and opportunity – the chance to define themselves and take control of their lives. Yet, these very things that make higher education so exciting and rewarding can also be dangerous. Those entering Freshers week already suffering from an eating disorder, either in a diagnosed or in a silent way, find themselves in a place where they are in full command, where there is ample opportunity to eat, drink and exercise in whatever way you see fit and there is no obvious figure to check the hollowness of your ‘I’m fine’. With deadline pressure points, identity insecurity and lack of routine, funds or fixed support networks, amongst all the regular day to day anxieties of any young person, it is not hard to see how those vulnerable to mental disorders of any kind can slip just over the edge.
The charity Student Minds notes that 1 in 10 of all people in the UK will at some point experience symptoms of anorexia, bulimia or binge eating during their lives. In many ways it’s surprising that figure isn’t higher – proportionally it certainly is among young people. It is easy to see how what begins as a health kick, or a detox, or a budget enforced cut back can spiral into something much more sinister and overwhelming. A single, secret purge can become an inescapable way of life, without anyone even noticing. In student halls, or shared accommodation, it is all too simple to blame eating habits or routines on library all-nighters or hangovers. The figure released recently stating that 69 per cent of university students attempting to find help struggled to access treatment is only the very tip of the iceberg.
I was lucky. When I skipped enough meals, cut enough food types and lost enough weight to fall into the low teens on the BMI scale, I had friends who had seen me grow up, teachers who saw me everyday, and my parents to push me to get myself better. When anorexia was my closely clutched secret, I had people determined to unearth it. Before starting university, I had, as much as anyone with an eating disorder can, recovered. Yet, with my diet in my full control and with the pressures and worries of the plunge into first year, I sensed those dark, disordered thoughts hovering dangerously close to the surface. If they had first emerged and taken hold at this time, I doubt my recovery would have been so quick, or so relatively straightforward.
Universities, and all places that are responsible for young people, need to take more responsibility. As institutions that aim to expand minds and to enhance mental capabilities, they should have mental health as a priority. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week in the UK, but there shouldn’t have to be a seven-day period where these issues and illnesses are pushed to the forefront. Cans of beans and too much booze might be necessary parts of student life, but suffering in silence and in secret certainly shouldn’t have to be.