College athletes are seen as the picture of health. But the focus, discipline, and competitiveness that creates a successful student-athlete can also fuel a serious health condition with lifelong impacts.
According to the National Eating Disorders Association, student-athletes are among those most likely to develop bone fractures and organ failures associated with eating disorders. But as the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit learned, it’s a mental health condition that receives little attention, and in some cases, goes ignored by coaches and administrators at major universities.
To see how deep the problem runs in California, the Investigative Unit asked all public Division I and Division II programs (where athletes receive NCAA scholarships) how many student athletes they’ve treated for eating disorders in the last five years. The 28 schools educate nearly 10,000 student athletes each year, but none of the universities had any idea how many student-athletes they’ve treated. Some schools told us they don’t track that information, others said they didn’t refer any students for treatment.
Former University of California, Los Angeles runner Mary Wright believes the prevalence of eating disorders on college teams is a problem that needs more transparency. In 2003, the Soquel High School cross country standout earned a scholarship to compete for the Bruins, achieving a childhood goal.
“I was super excited, that was always my dream school,” Wright told NBC Bay Area.
But the pressure to perform at the collegiate level triggered anxiety over her weight. Wright says those worries were reinforced in the locker room.
“In our first couple months there, we went into a room and got our body fat measured, “Wright recalled. “Everyone hears what your body fat is.”
Nervous about her spot on the roster, Wright looked to a teammate for guidance.
“She was losing weight and then she was running faster. And then you realize that she’s restricting her food completely. And so without really even noticing, I was emulating what she was doing.”
Wright says she was never educated about the dangers of eating disorders and by the end of her freshman year, losing weight became an obsession. So much so, she chose to leave UCLA and began her recovery away from college sports.
“I was self-aware enough to know that it was becoming an issue and my parents knew it was an issue and I just said, you know what – and I was just completely done,” Wright said.
Former University of California, Berkeley soccer player Jennifer Medina says she also began restricting food as a way to improve her spot on the team. But her short term solution led to long term health problems.
“I kind of was just barely functioning,” Medina told NBC Bay Area. “When they did a bone density scan, [it looked like] I was already in my 60s,” Medina described.
When she finally sought help, Medina says her coach wasn’t educated on how to properly handle the situation, and forced her to “out” herself to the entire team.
“He just said ‘Jen, do you have something you want to tell the team?’ Here I am, it was the first time I saw a lot of them in a few months and they could all tell that I dropped significantly and that I do not look good, and I was just mortified,” Medina recalled. “I knew his intentions were right, but his execution was wrong and his execution is not uncommon.”
Now, as a mental health therapist, Medina wants to change the game by providing support to students struggling with eating disorders.
“There is no risk free sport. For guys as well. Out of all mental illnesses, this has the highest mortality rate, this is not a joke,” Medina said.
Both eating disorders and disordered eating (a less severe form of eating disorder) can be difficult to detect and even harder to discuss.
In 1999 the NCAA surveyed 1,445 student athletes and found 34 percent of women at risk for anorexia and 38 percent of men with signs of bulimia. Those results prompted both the NCAA and the National Athletic Trainers Association to provide schools with guidelines on how to screen athletes using questions like “Has anyone ever set a target weight for you” and “Do you ever limit food intake to control weight?”
But the Investigative Unit’s review of medical history forms found those best practices are often ignored. Out of the 28 California schools that offer NCAA scholarships, at least half a dozen don’t ask any recommended questions about weight and body image.
Pediatrician Jennifer Carlson works with dozens of student athletes as part of the eating disorders care team at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. She believes disordered eating is a problem campuses often overlook.
“It is key to have some kind of question where you’re asking about these issues because otherwise they may not come up,” Carlson said. “We have seen athletes who at age 20-21, have fractures that you should not be seeing until someone is more at the age of 50 or 60.”
Carlson is now working on a studying looking at medical history forms for Stanford athletes to determine whether athletes who showed symptoms of disordered eating and malnutrition went on to suffer serious injuries.
“We looked over the course of their college career to see did they sustain any stress fracture or bone injury, so we can say if an athlete had this score, what was their likelihood of developing a stress fracture over their college career,” Carlson explained. The goal is to develop a tool that will help coaches and trainers identify students at risk so they can be treated early.
At San Jose State University, student health center director Roger Elrod says his department has a team dedicated to treating all students with eating disorders, including athletes. For the first time this spring, that team will meet with the entire coaching staff to educate them on the disordered eating signs, symptoms, and preventative measures.
“The problem is, there’s still a whole lot of shame and stigma associated with eating disorders,” Elrod told NBC Bay Area.
But not all schools are as proactive. Unlike other medical conditions including concussions and sickle cell trait, schools aren’t required to follow best practices for preventing and treating disordered eating. It is left up to each school to address, and as we found in some cases, to ignore.
NBC Bay Area asked to speak with the Chancellor’s Office for both the California State University and University of California systems, both declined our request to discuss problems on their campuses.
“We need to be open and honest with each other to talk about this. If we can have those conversations and be transparent it would be empowering,” Wright said.
Wright believes it’s critical for administrators to raise awareness by educating students and staff, so that more athletes don’t suffer from this health threat.