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Thursday, April 18, 2024

UF struggles to treat students for eating disorders

As National Eating Disorders Awareness Week comes to an end, UF's GatorWell Health Promotion Services continues to tell students about treatment available to them at the Student Health Care Center.

The only problem is that the SHCC has been unable to keep up with the number of students who seek treatment for eating disorders.

"We can't treat everyone here at UF with an eating disorder," said Dr. Marcia Morris, a UF clinical coordinator and psychiatrist. "We don't have all the resources to do that."

Eating disorders have long been a significant problem on college campuses.

According to The Massachusetts Eating Disorders Association, 15 percent of women aged between 17 and 24 have an eating disorder.

Based on that number, about 3,000 undergraduate women at UF could be suffering from eating disorders.

A State of Disorder

UF's Eating Disorders Program is made up of a team of therapists, psychiatrists, primary care providers and nutritionists who offer individual and group counseling.

Students who visit the SHCC for eating disorder treatment see a therapist for an initial evaluation, said SHCC therapist Lynne Goldman.

After being evaluated, students are referred to community providers or can try to schedule appointments with the SHCC, Goldman said.

However, the program's resources don't allow therapists to see their patients on a regular basis, she said.

"We have a program, and we try to do our best, but we are spread thinly," she said.

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Dr. Barbara Welsch, licensed psychologist at the center, said students need to talk to a therapist once a week for adequate treatment. Therefore, many students are referred to community practitioners.

"We try to get people evaluated as soon as possible," Morris said. "If we have too many clients, we do refer people out for therapy."

The Eating Disorders Program meets with community practitioners once a month to discuss treatment plans and possible improvements.

In addition to individual therapy sessions, the Eating Disorders Program has two nine-student therapy groups that meet once a week during the semester, Welsch said.

"Every semester, we turn away people from our groups," she said.

But UF is not the only state school unable to provide adequate treatment.

At the Florida State University Counseling Center, some patients have to wait two to three weeks for an appointment, said Dr. James Hennessey, an FSU clinical psychologist.

Sometimes its staff sends a client with a serious eating disorder to get help at a community practice.

"That would make more sense for them," Hennessey said. "We have to serve 40,000 students here. Our staff time is limited."

University of South Florida Counseling Center psychologist Dr. Jill Langer said more psychologists are needed there as well in order to keep up with student demands.

"We aren't funded adequately," Langer said. "We get backed up, so there usually is a wait."

The ratio of counselors to students at USF is one counselor for 3,000 students, she said.

Langer said the nationwide college ratio is one counselor for 1,700 students.

UF's ratio was not available.

The Envrionmental Trigger

Therapists and former patients say that when students with eating disorders seek treatment on campus, it is important that they are seen immediately.

UF junior Jennifer Goetz, who serves as a GatorWell nutrition and eating disorder outreach assistant, began struggling with anorexia at 13 years old.

Goetz, who described herself as a "classic case," said her constant strive for perfection transformed into an eating disorder.

"Your genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger," she said.

She said if UF students have to wait for treatment, that feeds the problem and makes them think that they're "not sick enough" for help.

"Any delay in help is more time to sit with those thoughts," Goetz said.

Welsch said if students are willing to talk, SHCC professionals should ideally be able to jump in and help them because their attitudes toward getting help can change during the wait.

"If someone's ready to talk today, they could change their mind in three weeks," Welsch said in regard to students who might be placed on waiting lists.

Referring students to community practitioners does not necessarily resolve the problem. Depending on their insurance policies, patients will have to pay for expensive therapy sessions in comparison to free therapy on campus.

A Balancing Act

Welsch said if more offices were built, the SHCC would be able to hire and train more therapists.

However, phase one of the new Student Health Care Center, which is due to be completed by May 2009, will have even less office space than the current building.

"Our training program as it is may be in jeopardy because of space issues," Welsch said.

Morris said she would like another nutritionist, therapist and psychiatrist to be hired, but it isn't possible because of budgetary issues.

"We right now do not have the resources to hire new people, but it would be a wonderful goal at some point," she said.

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