Towle: More Than One Disease

While many students return home to curb the spread of one disease, another one could be worsening.

by Sydney Towle | 4/27/20 2:00am

This past fall, I was diagnosed with an eating disorder — specifically, a restrictive form of anorexia. This became a label, one that began to be all I thought about. I seemed to spend every spare moment agonizing over my caloric intake and obsessing over how many miles I would run at the gym that day. 

During this time of chaos, many of us have found ourselves without structure or daily routine. This is a wholly disorienting experience, one that has disproportionately affected those with mental health issues. We can’t allow the current crisis to let us forget about the severity of mental illness. Rather, we must focus on providing more resources and support to those struggling. To this end, Dartmouth needs to set an example for other institutions and ensure its students are receiving the same level of support as they would on campus.

Quarantine has given us excessive time at home, without much to do and a lot of time with which to do it. Dartmouth’s campus is very conducive to an active lifestyle — I hit 10,000 daily steps with ease just from walking to class. But at home, maintaining a similar lifestyle requires going out of one’s way to pursue exercise. Being confined at home also results in a lot of unnecessary snacking, since it’s much easier to walk into the kitchen than it would be to go to a dining hall on campus. Both of these factors place intense pressure on students to actively maintain a healthy lifestyle, despite the unconventional circumstances that we are currently facing. 

On campus, my hectic schedule allows me roughly an hour to go to the gym. Between on-campus jobs, class, homework, clubs and social time, I physically can’t spend more than an hour exercising without getting behind on other obligations. While quarantined, I have all the time in the world. I have found myself running up to 12 miles at once because I finally have the flexibility to support my obsession with working out. 

My high school self would rejoice at my ability to run this mileage. However, at that time of my life, I also ate enough to fuel my body for this level of physical activity. Now, even with open access to a kitchen and snacks, my caloric intake is not nearly enough for this kind of physical exertion. Rather than eating actual meals and nourishing my body, I have resorted to late-night binge eating on homemade cookies and banana bread. On campus, late-night snacking isn’t as easy as walking into your kitchen and making whatever you want. At Dartmouth, I rely on the meals I have throughout the day, knowing that I cannot binge-eat whatever I want once I am in my dorm room. 

At school, I also have friends who encourage me to consume healthy amounts of food. Watching my friends fill their plates with food at the Class of ’53 Commons — without caring about how many calories are in their stack of cookies — inspires me to do the same. Having people ask me to grab meals also enforces an eating schedule, so that I can’t just skip dinner whenever I feel like it. At home, however, when I do eat a meal, it is often in my room alone. While my family knows about my eating disorder and cares about my well-being, I do not have the same encouragement or enforcement as I do on campus. 

We are all facing different challenges as a result of the coronavirus. While removing ourselves from campus is meant to prevent the spread of one disease, many students are returning home to face less-visible illnesses, like eating disorders. The changing circumstances due to COVID-19 have forced me into a more intense battle with my own illness. If you are experiencing any form of mental health degradation as a result of COVID-19, you are not alone. And if you know people who already struggled with mental health, make sure to check in with them. 

Dartmouth can do something to support students’ mental health. The College needs to take the lead by making sure students are receiving the proper support while at home. While I have received a couple of generic emails regarding mental health resources, no one from the College has reached out to me personally to check in. For those who struggle with mental health, reaching out can be very difficult. If the College doesn’t take the initiative to individually check in with students who have a documented mental health history, problems will go unchecked, and students will end up feeling even more isolated than they already do. Moreover, Dartmouth should encourage individual professors and departments to check in with all students. At Harvard, house advisors and academic departments have sent regular emails with tips and affirmations, which students have cited as helpful. Students need to be reminded that they are not alone and have consistent support available. 

Many of us will still be battling our own illnesses when this pandemic is all over. We need to make sure that those struggling with mental illness are receiving more support now than ever.