When Stephanie Snell tried to find information on campus about eating disorders, the closest thing she could find was an outdated nutritional pamphlet.
The senior, who studies exercise science with a concentration in dietetics, watched her friends struggle with eating disorders in high school. She started SPEAK GW, which had its first meeting this month, to spread awareness about eating disorders and maintaining positive body image.
“We want to keep people engaged, even if they don’t think it’s something they should learn more about, kind of showing them, ‘This is relevant to you,’ ” Snell said.
SPEAK, which stands for Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge, started in 2002 as a research project at the University of Utah. Though the group began with just four students, it is in the process of expanding to other college campuses and has more than 85 members across the country.
Snell said eating disorders and body image issues are critical topics for college students because their high-stress environments can trigger or aggravate the conditions. Everything from a student’s relationships, to schoolwork to being away from home could be a factor.
About 95 percent of individuals with eating disorders are between the ages of 12 and 26, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
The chapter plans to create strictly factual pamphlets that will compile useful information about eating disorders and related topics – not just for those seeking treatment, but also for concerned friends or those interested in learning more. It will also look to host presentations on the broad range of eating disorders and how to seek help.
“I think through information, people will be able to draw conclusions that it’s just not one person’s problem, but also they can see on paper that guys have it, girls have it, rich people, poor people, every color,” Snell said.
SPEAK GW’s faculty adviser, assistant professor of exercise science Amanda Visek, said one of the group’s most powerful assets is that it is completely student-run, which can make reaching out less intimidating for some students.
“It’s sort of this peer-to-peer education, so there’s opportunity for that mentorship, whereas students might be more reluctant to seek information from a faculty member or a helping professional like a counselor or therapist,” Visek said.
SPEAK GW has reached out to faculty and other campus organizations to work together on its mission, such as the University Counseling Center, which established an eating disorder counseling program in 2009.
Visek said administrators and groups on campus have been perceptive to the group’s initiative. She said SPEAK GW hopes to collaborate with the University Counseling Center and the Lerner Health and Wellness Center to serve as students’ first point of contact when seeking help or information.
Justine Reel, the faculty adviser for SPEAK’s founding Utah chapter, said though the group began as a research initiative, outreach quickly became one of the most important aspects of the organization.
“It’s always been about looking at promoting positive body image,” Reel said. “Anybody can benefit from health promotion and from having a positive body image, regardless of their shape, their size, their history, whether they have an eating disorder or not.”
Reel said that, while the group exists as a resource to anyone seeking information about eating disorders and body image, SPEAK’s multiple chapters can also help people find appropriate professional help when needed, both locally and nationally.