Friday 8 September 2017

University with an eating disorder? To take a gap year, or not?

It's that time of year again when young people are heading off to university. If you remember, my son headed off to Sheffield University in September 2012, six months after being discharged from eating disorder treatment. The CAMHS nurse said she "couldn't see any reason why he wouldn't be ready to go to university in September". Me, well I was a bit less sure. And in the event, as  you may remember if you've been following my blog, Ben lasted two or three days before he was back home for an impromptu 'gap' year. Here's an edited version of something I wrote on the Around The Dinner Table forum (for parents of young people with eating disorders) about that gap year and why it was a Good Decision for my son.

When we packed up Ben's belongings and moved him out of his university apartment (just days after moving him into it), I reminded him of the condition I'd made if he were to defer his degree for 12 months.

He was to put the year to good use. He was to get a job, whether paid or unpaid, he was to get back into a social network and he was to work with me on overcoming all the niggly bits that remained of his eating disorder. The idea was that, by September 2013, (if he still wanted to go) he would be better prepared to handle university and its pressures.

This is what I wrote on the forum (edited):

During his unplanned gap year my son volunteered at a local charity (thrift) shop. He also got in touch with his old school to see if he could do some teaching practice for free. So he was doing both these activities.

We also encouraged him to get out there and meet people and during this year he made some fantastic friends with whom he shared the same hobbies. But most important of all, when my son wasn't doing all these things, he and I worked on moving him forwards so he would hopefully be ready to make a second attempt at university the following September.

Even though on the face of it the second attempt at university in September 2013 was successful, and because my son was now in a position where he was eating properly and regularly without the need for me to supervise (and I knew I could trust him to do it), he still had some MAJOR teething problems during that first year.

In fact it got to the stage where I'd dread getting a Facebook message from him because it would terrify me, especially if the 's' word was mentioned, which it was on a number of occasions... "Ping!" Facebook Messenger would go and I'd go cold with dread...

As part of our Big Plan to better prepare Ben for university re-entry in 2013, we'd met up with the various university support staff to draw up a support package. The Accommodation Mentor especially was massively supportive. She and her team worked till 9pm on most nights. I'd fire of an 'emergency!' email to her or call her and she'd dash round to Ben's apartment and have a chat. He also made use of the university counselling service and signed up with a fantastic GP at the university medical centre. Plus, he came home every weekend. All of this made things easier. But I won't pretend that it was plain sailing. He struggled - and so did we, which was why he readily agreed that I could contact support services direct in an emergency. (Because he was over 18 he had to give his written permission for me to do this.)

Somehow he got through that first year but goodness only knows what would have happened if he'd stayed at university the first time around in 2012. The best thing we did was to take him out once we realised that it wasn't going to work. 

My point is that, even when my son was to all intents and purposes 'ready' for uni the second time round in 2013, it was a huge culture shock coming after years of eating disorder imposed isolation. On top of this he seemed so much younger and less mature than the other students - in body and in mind - another legacy of the eating disorder which had resulted in a kind of freeze-frame of his life.

Really,  in my opinion and with hindsight, a young person needs to be fully recovered from an eating disorder before attempting something as challenging and tricky as going away to university.

(But the Good News is that, thankfully, the second year was a heck of a lot better and the third year... well... by this time he was loving it! So much so that he stayed an extra year to do a Master's Degree.)
Is your son or daughter about to leave for university or college? Are you worried about how they will cope? CLICK HERE for links to posts about my son's experience at university.

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