New counseling program addresses eating disorders

A new counseling program aimed at increasing awareness and treatment for those suffering from eating disorders has been initiated by the University Counseling Center.

Two key components of the push, which encourages students with eating disorders or body issues to seek help, are an improved treatment plan and increased outreach to at-risk groups, including women in sororities and athletes, said Dr. John Dages, the director of the UCC.

Dages said he believes there are many students battling eating disorders who are going without help or counsel. The counseling center had more than 4,300 appointments last year and just less than 10 percent of those were initially for concerns about eating disorders.

The actual percentage of students with eating disorders is likely “considerably higher,” Dages said. “We felt it was particularly important to focus some of our clinical resources towards treating those with eating disorders.”

Treatment for eating disorders can be tricky, Dages said. Eating disorders are an “over-learned, self-reinforcing pattern of behavior.”

“Many people consider those struggling with eating disorders as never cured but in recovery.” Dages said. “Being in recovery often means understanding that there may be relapse, so part of the treatment is designed to help people deal with those relapses.”

Dages said that eating disorders “are often not about food, but about control.”

A new feature of the program is the telephone triage system, which allows a student to immediately speak with a staff member or set up an appointment within the next 24 hours.

Students now have their first appointment within 24 hours of calling, at their convenience, rather than making an in-office appointment that could take up to a week to occur. They also have their follow-up appointment with the same person they spoke with on the phone, rather than with a different person, as has sometimes been the case.

“Now they see the same person [who] they talked to on the phone for follow-up counseling so that they don’t have to tell their story twice,” Dages said.

The UCC is one of nine universities that use this assessment process, which Dages said “is considered state of the art.”

Another key component to the new initiative is expanding outreach services, especially to at-risk groups, about healthy eating and wellness. Since about 90 percent of those suffering from eating disorders nationwide are women, the UCC has planned major initiatives for the fall, including programs for sororities and other groups popular among women on campus.

Outreach efforts include free screenings and discussions and talks with sororities and fraternities.

“Body image and eating disorders are always a concern among college students,” Dean Harwood, GW’s director of Greek life, said in an e-mail. “They are often seen at a higher rate in fraternities and sororities due to the brother/sister relationships of chapter members. They tend to watch out for each other.”

“We talk to the Counseling Center, and Dr. Dages, quite often to share thoughts on issues that affect our students. We also look to UCC for educational programming for the chapters, and support when individuals need assistance,” Harwood said.

The UCC is also working to enhance partnerships with Student Health Services, the athletic department and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center. The center looks to provide continuing education for the professional staff about short-term treatment models and recognizing signs of disordered eating.

The athletic department has not yet started collaboration with the UCC, said Director of Athletics Jack Kvancz. But Kvancz said that though he was not familiar with the UCC’s outreach program, his department hosts one or more speakers every year to talk to student athletes about eating disorders, drug abuse or other issues which may affect them.

“I think we do some of this already, but the more we’re involved, the better,” Kvancz said.

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