Sophomore Alison Devenny, one of millions inflicted with the disease anorexia nervosa, used to consume only 500 calories a day. But when Devenny sought help at the University Counseling Center last year, she said no one would help her in the struggle to overcome the disease.
“Unfortunately, GW has a very inadequate eating disorder counseling program,” said Devenny, who has received outside treatment for anorexia nervosa and body image problems.
She said she attempted to contact the counseling center several times last year but staff members were only available for appointments nine hours a week.
“With a population of this magnitude there should be a program focused on eating disorders alone,” said Devenny, who was featured in a Washington Post article last month.
“There’s basically no outreach,” she continued. “GW owes it to the students to have some sort of program in place. It’s a glaring mistake that GW doesn’t have one.”
A junior who wished to remain anonymous agreed with Devenny about the counseling center’s inadequacies. The student, who has been treated for an eating disorder for many years, and even transferred schools as a result of the disorder, had difficulty getting an appointment at the center.
She said she was forced to seek treatment outside the University after relapsing into pervious patterns of anorexic behavior.
“They were very unhelpful … they put me on a two-week waiting list, but no one ever called me back,” she said. “If they have that many people that they have a two-week waiting list they need to hire more staff.”
But counseling center officials said GW has pro-active treatment programs and that students are given appointments as soon as possible.
Center staff psychologist Gabriella Pessah said all students are seen as “soon as their schedules fit with our available appointments.” Students are usually seen within a week, Pessah said, noting that wait time may vary depending on what time of the year it is and a patient’s flexibility.
If a student’s need for counseling is urgent, they will usually be seen right away.
“Although infrequent, there are times when once students have been seen for their initial appointment, there may be a wait for them to begin counseling sessions,” Pessah said. “However, if their situation is urgent, the counselor they see for their initial session will be available to them until a counselor is assigned.”
The counseling center, located at 2033 K St., is open from 8:30 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Fridays. If students need treatment outside regular office hours, they are directed to call the University Police, which will page an on-call counselor.
For students who need treatment on a long-term basis, referrals for off-campus therapists and nutritionists can be made through the center, Pessah said.
Lynn Grefe, chief executive officer of the National Easting Disorders Association, said about 10 to 15 percent of people diagnosed with anorexia die from the disease, making it the highest premature mortality rate of any mental illness.
According to the NEDA Web site, nearly 10 million women and one million men are struggling with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.
“We’re trying to steer people towards health,” Grefe said. “These people need to recognize that they have an illness … I mean, who is in favor of people being ill?”
Debra Davis, the center’s clinical psychologist, said requests for eating disorder treatment “are not terribly common … there aren’t huge numbers beating down our doors.”
Davis added that it is difficult to get people with eating disorders in for treatment, but that the counseling center does deal with students who have body image and self-esteem issues.
In order to combat eating disorders, the center has created a treatment group, “Hunger, Hope and Healing,” which Davis said is designed to “attack (eating disorders) from all fronts.” Davis said the group aims to treat all the disease’s aspects: psychological, medical, nutritional and social.
Davis would not comment on whether she thought eating disorders were more common at GW than on other college campuses because no statistics are available, but said “the concern with being thin is prevalent in our society at large.”
Besides the support group, members of the counseling center have given talks for various student groups and sororities upon request. Davis said the frequency of such outreach programs depend upon “the demand for our service.”
But Devenny said the counseling center’s group therapy eating disorder program is not the best way for students to get treatment.
She said, “A lot of people with eating disorders wouldn’t feel comfortable making their first step in a group setting.”