Hello again! I’m a few days late, but Happy International Women’s Day!
In honor and celebration of this day, I would like to introduce my two mentors, Dr. Suman Ambwani and Dr. Rebecca Pearl, who have made great contributions to mental health issues that are particularly prevalent among women. Specifically, both of them are experts in the field of weight- and eating-related mental health.
Dr. Suman Ambwani is my On-Campus Advisor. She is now Associate Professor of Psychology at Dickinson College. She received her B.A. at Macalester College and her PhD from Texas A&M University. Dr. Suman Ambwani is particularly interested in eating disorder and how personality, interpersonal interactions, and social cognition are related to eating disorder. More recently, Dr. Ambwani has also become interested in weight stigma and the means by which we transmit the stigma.
What does trauma have to do with an eating disorder?
This is the question I asked myself over and over again, but it’s a question we don’t seem to talk about.
What did my sexual assault have to do with my eating disorder? I struggled to put the pieces together. I poured over scholarly literature, using my school’s online library to find any research I could that examined the connection between rape and eating disorders.
But the literature was scarce, and even more scarce was the information online that examined the intersection between trauma and eating disorders. The discussions about these issues existed in separate spheres. Sexual assault advocacy seemed to center around helping survivors report the assault, seeking some sort of justice for the atrocity we’ve experienced.
But, to me, the onus is still on the survivor to report–and the shame I felt, the powerlessness, was exacerbated by the feeling that I was supposed to be fighting a battle against my assailant–not a war against myself.
This post was originally published in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper.
Dear My Best Friend’s Professor,
I wanted to start off by letting you know that I think you are amazing. I don’t know the extent of what you do here at UCLA, but I do know that in order to have reached your esteemed position at this university, you have done incredible research and have played a huge part in shaping the minds of tomorrow. For these things, I thank you.
I’m writing to you because I didn’t feel I could adequately express my concerns on the quarterly evaluation form. As you know, your student (my best friend) has been in treatment for her mental health-related difficulties. And as you are well aware, this has taken a toll on her class performance.
My best friend was diagnosed with anorexia this quarter. Her condition steadily worsened. Anorexia was killing her. She should have been hospitalized on the spot.
For several years now, I have helped college students plan Eating Disorders Awareness Week events. In honor of this year’s EDAW, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned.
Almost every campus EDAW program is about body image.
Here’s why that sucks.
Poor body image alone doesn’t cause eating disorders. If it did, then the prevalence of eating disorders would be two or three times what it is. Now, sure, for many who struggle with anorexia and some who struggle with bulimia, body image is a part of the illness. But even then, it is rarely a cause.
Plus, when we focus almost exclusively on body image, we exclude so many people who are struggling because the issue doesn’t resonate for them. They think to themselves, “that’s not why this is happening!” and they disengage.
Finally, focusing on body image minimizes the range of eating disorders that exist and their complexity. Eating disorders are not diets run amok. The are the most persistent and deadly mental illnesses. They’re about a lot more than comparing oneself against airbrushed bodies in magazines, and everyone’s experience is different. As someone who has personally struggled with anorexia in the past, I will never be able to completely understand someone else’s struggle with anorexia—let alone bulimia or binge eating disorder.
It’s been 11 years since I walked out the doors of my eating disorders treatment program and into a windy, but mild February afternoon.
My time there had felt both quick and endless. The days were long, the nights were short, and the effects were profound.
Unlike many other people who struggle with eating disorders, I didn’t end up having to go back to inpatient treatment ever again. I don’t mean to imply the road from there has been all puppies and rainbows, but I do consider myself incredibly lucky.
Active Minds at Winona State University recently won Active Minds’ Programming Innovation Award for their mental health story-sharing program, the Mental Health Monologues (check out their videos)! Based on the highly popular Vagina Monologues, students, faculty, and staff (some as actors and others as authors of the stories) brought mental health struggles to life by reading personal experiences with mental illness in a theatrical setting.
The overall goal of this program was to “erase the stigma surrounding mental health and show that there is hope of treatment and recovery for mental illness.” They hoped that this emotionally-charged public presentation of personal stories would reveal the ways in which mental illness affects different people, whether they are personally struggling or supporting a loved one.
I loved school like most “smart kids” do. Nothing was too difficult until the end of my junior year of high school when I began to gain some weight.
A few of my friends had started using MyFitnessPal so I decided to download it. Though it was just an app, I soon felt like every time I logged a meal, I was disappointing it. I became terrified of messing up and eating more than the voice in my head was telling me to. Soon the app became the least of my worries.
By the time I started college at the University of Georgia in 2014, I was overwhelmed with depression and suicidal thoughts. I remember telling myself that I would rather be sick and thin than happy and fat. My life was out of control. No one was paying attention to how long I was at the gym or how infrequently I ate. I hid my eating disorder because I was ashamed.
Looking for a creative way to start a conversation about mental health and engage a large population in your community or on your campus? Active Minds at Rochester Institute of Technology may have found one of the most creative ways yet to engage their campus, get the word out about their chapter, and educate their peers at the same time: they brought The White Balloon to their campus.
The goal of this program was to inform peers about the proportion of college students who live with mental illness in the United States. They accomplished this goal in three ways: balloons, mystery, and social media.
This post is part of a Suicide Prevention Month blog series. Read the other blogs here.
I am alive.
Some days, this surprises me. I think of all that has happened in the 20.5 years of my life and am shocked to find myself still standing, still breathing, heart still beating. If you asked me a couple years ago if I would live to see 21, I would have laughed in your face. I would have said that my illnesses would probably take me before I even reached 18.
My illnesses are not physical; they are mental. That does not mean that they are any less serious, life-threatening, or difficult. It means that everyday I was fighting a battle against myself. I was at war with my own being and that was difficult on its own.
At age 17, after spending three years trying to balance my eating disorder, depression, borderline personality, anxiety, and self injury alongside of high school and being a “normal” teenager, I decided it was time to give up. I was tired of trying medication after medication. I was tired of going through so many different therapists. I was tired of fighting. I thought that it was never going to get better and that treatment was failing me. I felt hopeless.Continue Reading