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Monday, October 2, 2023

Academics & Research

Virtual recovery resources now an option in treating eating disorders

Virtual eating disorder treatment, recently launched in Texas, can help students through recovery while in school. | File photo/The Cougar

Those who suffer from an eating disorder — including up to a quarter of college students — can now receive treatment wherever there is private space with access to a computer, video and internet with the first-of-its-kind Virtual Intensive Outpatient program in Texas.

The Eating Recovery Center is the only health care system that treats patients  — male and female — at all stages of any eating disorder through multidisciplinary inpatient facilities across seven states, according to its website.

The virtual version was piloted in California and later launched in Nebraska, Ohio and Texas.

“The new program that we developed is to reach individuals who need treatment, who aren’t able to get into a center — you know, for travel reasons — they don’t have a car to get to treatment, or there isn’t one near by them, or it doesn’t fit with their life or schedule,” said Casey Tallent, national collegiate outreach director at the Eating Recovery Center.

It is also designed for transitional care, or patients who are returning to campus after inpatient treatment, Tallent said.

VIOP offers the exact services as the one in person.

Up to eight people connect for group therapy, nutrition groups and meal support via video on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday evenings to best accommodate student schedules. The program also includes one weekly individual or family therapy session and biweekly meetings with a dietitian.

“We have an app (Recovery Record) that gives 24/7 access to the therapist and the dietitian — to record your mood, your food intake, and then we are able to put therapeutic tools through that, too, so we could send mindfulness activities,” Tallent said. “So it’s really a comprehensive program done virtually for convenience.”

A complex issue

“Research estimates that 20 to 25 percent of college students will struggle with an eating disorder,” Tallent said. “They have the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses. About one person per hour dies from an eating disorder.”

Traditional diagnoses include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder. Two  recently coined diagnoses are drunkorexia and orthorexia.

Drunkorexia is more of a term and not a diagnosis, Tallent said. It is the behavior of restricting calories prior to binge drinking that is “kind of a gateway behavior to both eating disorders and substance abuse,” and this is a behavior friends and family should watch for, Tallent said.

Orthorexia nervosa, which refers to people who have an unhealthy obsession with food choices that become restrictive in variety and calories, will likely be a diagnosis once the next Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is released, Tallent said.

“I think this program can be very helpful,” said mechanical engineering senior Lizette Ayana. “I was hospitalized for a month and had to withdraw for the semester two years ago. It got bad again last fall, and I looked into getting treatment in Denver, but I didn’t wanna lose a whole year.”

Ayana started struggling with bulimia at 18. She said it was stressful to deal with an eating disorder while in college. Even now, after she is further in her recovery, she sometimes worries about relapsing back into a cycle.

“You get stuck binging and purging,’ she said. “It consumes your life. I was always feeling alone and started drinking, and before you know, your body starts failing, and things like school stop being a priority.”

A recent study shows that nearly 50 percent of people with an eating disorder likely have problem with drugs or alcohol. Both of these components are independently correlated with higher rates of suicide and medical complication related deaths. The study showed that genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors affect eating disorders and substance abuse. 

Seeking help

Reaching out to college campus resource centers can be the first step to have a healthy and successful college experience, Tallent said. The Eating Recovery Center now has the resources to provide an initial assessment for an eating disorder, enabling them to treat it or refer somebody else to treat it.

UH’s Counseling and Psychological Services has a list of eating disorder services with contact information for students.

Tallent was a psychologist at University of Nebraska for many years, and she noticed that students often forget to incorporate their values into their schedule.

“If family is really important and you are away from family at college, make sure you schedule time to connect with family, whether it be via phone or via FaceTime,” Tallent said.

She also stressed the importance of getting enough sleep and scheduling meals. She recommends planning meals and snack times rather than eating around everything else in a daily agenda.

Having time for fun and relaxing is frequently overlooked, but it can positively impact those suffering from an eating disorder.

Warning Signs

These are behaviors to look out for, according to NEDA:

  • Signs of perfectionism in school or work
  • Anxiety tied to living away from home and handling meals
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Compulsive and over-exercising
  • Increase in drinking— i.e. drunkorexia

A short assessment and contact form are available on the Eating Recovery Center website for anyone seeking help for themselves or someone they know.

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