Eating Disorder Peer Advisors

by Margie DeWard | 11/4/97 6:00am

Do you know someone at Dartmouth who has an eating disorder? Chances are, if you've been here for awhile, you probably do. A 1991 survey conducted by the Dartmouth Office of Nutrition Education revealed that 80% of students know someone at Dartmouth who has an eating disorder.

A more extensive study of the class of 1999 found that more than 80% of Dartmouth women want to lose weight, while 40% of the men want to gain weight. The study also suggests that one-third of Dartmouth women describe themselves as overweight, while in reality only four percent are overweight at all. These statistics confirm what most of us already believe: in addition to eating disorders, varying degrees of disordered eating behaviors exist throughout the student population.

During my first year at Dartmouth, I myself learned that some of my closest friends had eating disorders. To hear them say the words "I have an eating disorder" was like having a bomb dropped on me. At first, I felt guilty, because I was so close to them yet never knew they had a problem. How could I not have known? What kind of friend was I? When I thought about it more, I realized that they were so good at hiding it that I couldn't have discovered it on my own. So, I began to think about what I, as a friend, could do to help. It was, and still is, extremely difficult to watch friends who I care about very deeply struggle with these problems. I knew that they needed help to deal with their eating disorders, but getting them to realize that for themselves was a whole different story. I felt helpless because nothing I said or did seemed to make a difference. I'm sure that many of you have had at least one similar experience during your time here; You know a person who you suspect may have an eating disorder, but you feel powerless to do anything about it.

This is why I was so happy to hear about a new program on campus. This past summer, a group of 99's began the EDPA (Eating Disorders Peer Advisors) program. Scott Jacobs '99, one of the program's founders, says, "We cannot eradicate the general need to 'fit in' or the desire to 'look our best,' but we can play a role in making sure that 'looking our best' is not confused with an obsession to control our bodies." Modeled after the SAPA (sexual abuse peer advisors) program, the purpose of EDPAs is to serve as a resource for students: both those who are concerned about eating issues in their own life and those who are concerned about their friend's behaviors.

This summer, 22 students went through intensive 12-hour training to become EDPAs. The diverse group consists of both men and women who have a variety of interests ranging from athletics to volunteering. Jacobs added, "We were extremely fortunate to have such a motivated, sensitive, and committed founding group to go through the training."

If a student is concerned about the eating habits of one of their friends, EDPAs can help him/her develop strategies for approaching the friend with the issue. EDPAs also have knowledge of the various on and off campus resources available to students, and can help separate myth from reality. Dr. Marcia Herrin, nutritionist and supervisor of the program, emphasizes the importance of getting the correct information out to students. She says, "Short-term counseling is available to students for free, and there is no insurance involved with it." For students who are wary about getting help, EDPAs will offer support and encouragement, and even go to the first appointment with them.

Herrin also wants students to be aware that the campus resources aren't only for those students with serious eating disorders. She emphasizes that "students don't have to meet a diagnostic criteria. There is help for anyone who is concerned about what their thoughts and behaviors around food and exercise are." If students don't feel comfortable with the on-campus resources, there are a variety of off-campus programs in the area which EDPAs can direct students to.

If you are concerned about your eating habits or those of a friend, don't wait to address the problem. Problems like these won't go away on their own. Talk to your friends, blitz or call an EDPA, or contact the resources at Dick's House. You don't have to go through this alone.