Body Image Intervention

Nicole Lowry, assistant director and counselor in the Personal Counseling Office.

Nicole Lowry, assistant director and counselor in the Personal Counseling Office.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Cross-disciplinary team trained to identify, assist those with eating disorders

Statistics show that up to 10 percent of college-age women suffer from disordered eating, and that 86 percent of them developed it before the age of 20. That means the vast majority of those who suffer from an eating disorder arrive at college with the problem, or develop it there.

“It’s a critical time and a window of opportunity to help those who are struggling,” said Nicole Lowry, assistant director and counselor in the college’s Personal Counseling Office.

The stakes are high. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Without treatment, 20 percent of those with serious eating disorders die; that mortality rate falls to 2 percent among those who have sought help.

“Unfortunately, few self-report,” Lowry said. “There’s usually a lot of shame involved and they don’t want to tell anyone, so you have to watch for the warning signs and then offer help.”

While counselors like Lowry and her colleagues in Personal Counseling are trained to do that, they are not “in the trenches” with the general student population.

“But faculty members, coaches, and athletic trainers are,” Lowry said. “They are on the front lines, interacting with these students every day. If they know what to watch for, they can let us know who might need help and we’ll take it from there.”

Because of this, last fall, Lowry invited a cross-disciplinary group of ten volunteer faculty, staff, and professional community members to join an Eating Disorders Support Team (EDST). The group’s mission: confidentially guide students who may be struggling with disordered eating to those who can help.

After initial education in the basics of eating disorders, team members meet twice a semester for continuing education on the topic, but can refer students to Lowry at any time.

“Eating disorders are complex medical and psychological problems that require a multi-pronged approach to treatment, which includes medical treatment, nutritional counseling, and behavioral therapy,” Lowry said. “We have all those components in place and can offer support and access to professionals, both on and off campus, who can help.”