At Cardiff University, research within the
student counselling service is producing new knowledge and practice to help
students with eating disorders
The impact of increasing levels of psychological disturbance among students in higher education was the subject of a report published by a division of the British Association of Counselling in March 1999.
They quote the "Young Minds" working group as stating that "the prevalence of psychiatric disorders in 16 to 25-year-olds has increased and disorders such as depression, schizophrenia and eating disorders are likely to be in their most acute phase during this stage of life".
As a result, Cardiff University has initiated an innovative project supporting students with eating disorders. Eating disorders are broadly described as anorexia nervosa, bulimia or compulsive eating, resulting in a preoccupation with weight, food, body image and possibly exercise, and with underlying issues such as a negative self-concept.
Contrary to popular belief, eating disorders affect both men and women. However, they occur most commonly in females during late teens to early twenties. Undoubtedly this would have an influence on students in higher education.
Disrupted eating patterns could move the focus of attention away from academic study and social enjoyment of university life and lead to increasing isolation. Fellow students working or living alongside a sufferer can experience problems and additional worries and may require counselling support.
Accurate figures are difficult to obtain, not least because of the concealed nature of eating disorders, perhaps through denial or reluctance to admit difficulties. However, last year 10 per cent of the students seeking counselling from our student service presented with an eating difficulty. Cardiff University has allocated development funds to employ two counsellors - appointed on a part-time basis over a two-year period initially.
Generating funding will be an integral part of the posts to enable the initiative to move forward and beyond the time boundaries. The aim of this project is to increase the provision of specialist counselling support for this client group and to undertake an action research study.
The project began in September 1999. During our first six months we have formed links with alternate specialists and support services in this field. We see this as an imperative first step because we anticipate that increased awareness and openness of the issues (through our advertising and promotion campaign within the university) will encourage students to seek help.
Following discussions with the Eating Disorder Association we have started a support group for our students and plan to help them explore such issues as self-esteem, stress management, relationships and body image. As expertise and understanding of current research in this field develops, we are reviewing therapeutic research and differing theoretical approaches, formulating a plan for the research study to take place in the next academic year.
We intend that this study will further inform the clinical practice of the service and allow our students the opportunity of accessing a range of services, including self-help materials, supporting them in maximising their full potential and options for change.
Vicky Groves and Julie DevIin work for Cardiff University student counselling service.