Eating disorders are among the fatal mental illnesses, and the stigma around having and discussing them often makes recovery more difficult. But a group of professionals at UNT have joined forces to ensure students get the help they need.
“We were seeing students needed extra help, and we wanted to have a comprehensive service to give the best care,” said Danielle Gemoets, Dietitian for the Body Image and Eating Awareness Team at the Student Health and Wellness Center.
People with eating disorders are preoccupied with how they look and what they eat, usually focusing significantly on food, weight and their body. The Body Image and Eating Awareness Team aims to prevent, recognize and treat eating disorders so students with these symptoms can work towards recovery.
The exact cause of eating disorders is unknown, as is the case with most mental illnesses. But they can be affected by biological, psychological and social factors. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, warning signs include obsessing over food, difficulty sleeping and being uncomfortable eating in front of others.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses that impact all aspects of a person’s life, so the team is made up of a psychologist, psychiatrist, medical provider, dietitian, fitness professional, student advocate and team coordinator.
“We’re here and we want to help,” Gemoets said. “We have different departments coming together for the common good of providing for students.”
The team also addresses body image. Gemoets said those suffering from eating disorders have problems tracing back to body image.
“What and how we eat has to do with more than what’s on the surface,” Gemoets said. “We want them to have an awareness and sensitivity to the deeper meaning behind food relationships.”
Dr. Herschel Vorhees, Executive Director for the Student Health and Wellness Center and the medical provider for the team, said one of the major goals for the team is to let people know it exists.
“We want to identify the problems early on before they start approaching having complications,” Vorhees said.
Vorhees said conversations about having the team have lasted since last school year, but the planning did not begin until April 2016. Those plans were finally implemented last September.
Gemoets estimates the team has helped 30 to 4o students. In a campus of nearly 37,000 students, that’s a small amount of the people who likely need treatment. She said college students are part of the age group where eating disorders are most prevalent, so making this service accessible and affordable is especially important.
Vorhees said to ensure students are aware of its availability, the team is advertised by the departments within Chestnut and at events where these departments are present. National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, for example, took place at the end of February. Events took place around campus where the team was mentioned, especially at the walk that closed out the week.
Wendy Comfort is the Assistant Director of Fitness at Pohl Recreation Center and the fitness professional for the team. She is less involved in the team because it is not a requirement to see her.
She has helped less than five students, but the ability to help even one makes it worth the time and effort.
“We figure out a healthy balance between eating and exercise,” Comfort said. “There’s a delicate balance for what you enjoy versus what makes you lose weight.”
Comfort oversees the fitness trainers, so every semester she brings a member from Counseling and Testing Services to present on how to recognize eating disorders.
“They learn how to identify the people who are going to multiple classes every day then still exercising in the facility afterwards,” Comfort said.
When it comes to her involvement in the team, Gemoets considers it a privilege to be a part of someone’s recovery. She has seen students go from desperation to hope, and it gives her hope as well.
“Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness,” Gemoets said. “The hard work comes from students and what they put into recovery. It can be really scary, and somebody has to be at a place where they’re ready to make changes. But it’s good to look at the numbers, to realize how common it is, and know they’re not alone.”
Students can contact the team by emailing beatED@unt.edu or calling 940-565-2333. A consent form must be signed first, then the team will evaluate and address the student’s needs. If the situation is beyond the team’s abilities, the Dean of Students or outside resources will be included.
Featured Image: Group coordinator of the NEDA walk and counselor Steffanie Grossman discusses the importance of body image and eating disorders before the walk for NEDA. UNT held its first NEDA walk on Saturday Feb. 25 organized by the counseling center that is focused on issues about body image this semester. Kelsey Shoemaker