Finding order amidst disorders

Initially, when Andrea Petersen of the Wall Street Journal asked to interview me for herpiece on transitioning to college with mental health issues, I was ambivalent. As president of Brown’s chapter of Active Minds, a nonprofit organization that strives to reduce the stigma surrounding mental illness, I welcomed the opportunity to speak out about the availability of mental health support and resources for students entering college. But I was not particularly keen on having my own battle with anorexia and anxiety reported in the Wall Street Journal. I would be revealing a part of myself that I had tried to hide for so long. Nevertheless, I decided that my failure to talk about these issues would only contribute to the stigma surrounding eating disorders and mental illness. I wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem.

My battle with anorexia began when I was 16 years old, attending an international boarding high school in Wales, U.K. I found myself in a highly competitive academic environment, surrounded by 170 other high-achieving students. Ultimately, my stress and anxiety manifested in an eating disorder. My senior year was particularly difficult, but after finally acknowledging my illness and seeking treatment, I started to recover.

My transition to Brown coincided with the first few months of my recovery process from anorexia. I did not really consider how the transition would affect my anxiety and recovery, and I viewed my entrance to Brown as a new beginning. I refused to recognize the potential risk factors and triggers for relapse. But during the process of adjusting to new classes and expectations, making new friends and becoming involved in extracurricular activities, things began to feel like they were spiraling out of control. In order to cope with these feelings, I once again began to restrict my eating. After a period of denial, I was forced to acknowledge and accept that I needed help.

My experience gives me insight into how to help students who are transitioning to college with mental health issues. I recommend that these students set up a support network and find out what resources are available to them on and around campus. It is important to do this right away. Petersen correctly noted that many young people who have battled eating disorders or other mental illnesses frequently relapse within years of treatment. She also accurately observed that the college environment, including the life changes and academic and social stresses it typically involves, can be particularly triggering for relapse. Even if you believe, as I did, you are not at risk of relapse, it is prudent to determine the resources available while you are not facing a crisis.

While Counseling and Psychological Services can be criticized for the exact issues addressed in Peterson’s article — long wait times to set up an appointment and a limit on the number of sessions available to students — CAPS remains an excellent resource for students, especially for obtaining referrals for treatment in the community. Additionally, CAPS offers support groups for students who are survivors of sexual assault, students transitioning back to Brown after a medical or personal leave and students with obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactive disorder and chronic medical conditions.

Though support groups or group therapy may seem intimidating at first, I have found it extremely beneficial to confide in people my own age who have faced challenges similar to my own. CAPS has great potential but remains hamstrung by insufficient resource allocation from the University. While the administration has shown significant progress in recognizing the importance of mental health on campus, it needs to dedicate more funding to the resources available to students and be more transparent with the student body with regard to policies related to mental health, such as forced medical leave.

In addition to establishing a support system, one must learn to recognize individual risk factors and triggers. These will vary from person to person. For some, like me, comments about others’ physical appearance and eating habits, certain locations on campus and academic stress could all be triggering. Being mindful and aware of these triggers allows me to use strategies I have acquired in treatment to cope in a healthy manner.

Family support, if available, is also extremely helpful. In my circumstance, I was very fortunate. My experience with anorexia and anxiety became a family affair. My parents and sister continue to provide me with endless support. I would advise parents in this situation not to fear that their child is succumbing to a challenge that they had previously overcome. Denial is never good — for the parent or the student — and recovery is a process, not an instantaneous event. Parents should be prepared for resistance and may recognize the problem long before their son or daughter does. Most importantly, a working relationship that allows candid communication with parents regarding issues of mental health is critical.

These are the resources and strategies that allowed me to confront and overcome my prior struggles with an eating disorder, and they remain with me should I ever face a similar challenge in the future. I hope what I have learned in my struggle is useful to others facing their own.

[Originally published in the Brown Daily Herald]
— Eliza Lanzillo, Brown undergrad '16 (Psychology)