By Allene Abrahamian
The University of Maryland chapter of Project HEAL made an impact for National Eating Disorder Awareness Week from Feb. 22 to 28 with events dedicated to supporting recovery for those affected by eating disorders.
Project HEAL is a non-profit organization that provides scholarship funding for people with eating disorders who cannot afford treatment. They promote healthy body image and self esteem and “serve as a testament that full recovery from an eating disorder is possible,” according to its website.
Co-Presidents Alicia McElhaney and Erika Klatt run the University of Maryland chapter of Project HEAL. McElhaney is a senior studying journalism, and Klatt is a junior studying bioengineering.
The organization’s efforts to raise money are important for the recovery process. Many who suffer from eating disorders go through intensive treatment, but after a few weeks, insurance companies no longer cover the cost and refer them to a therapist when they should stay in intensive treatment longer, McElhaney said.
“I used to be terrified to tell anybody that I had an eating disorder, and now I kind of just let that out,” McElhaney said. “It makes me feel less shameful. Mental illness can happen to anyone, no matter what color, race or size.”
“We are not licensed professionals to help and a lot of us know that,” McElhaney said. Instead, Project HEAL educates people on where they can seek help, such as the counseling and health centers on campus. For NEDA Week, they hosted events to provide a support system and raise awareness.
Powerful voices boomed over the microphone at The Board and Brew in College Park for the Body Image Open Mic event Feb. 25. The organization teamed up with HEALTH Works from the University Health Center to host the events near campus. Students and visitors read poems and shared personal stories about their struggle with eating disorders.
“I think that for everyone, recovery is a different journey. I think that if someone connects well with poems or likes to talk things out with people then it’s great,” Klatt said. “It’s really all about what you are comfortable with and what helps you in the process. I think art can have a huge impact on people though, through poems, paintings, or even just a quote that really resonates with you.”
At first, speakers were slow to approach the microphone, but the atmosphere shifted when they were encouraged to share their story in a safe environment. Students who were at The Board and Brew by chance even chimed in once the event caught their attention.
The night took an interesting turn when the subject of the LGBT community was brought up, resulting in a theme of overall acceptance over appearance, not just with eating disorders.
Sara McPhilmy, a senior studying communication, was one of the several students that attended the Body Image Open Mic event.
“I think it’s a really awesome event, it’s very important to talk about issues like this,” McPhilmy said about the speakers. “I very much admire them. Some people feel alone and when you put it out there like this, everyone can hear you. Even if they catch one word, they look over and they’re hearing something.”
On Feb. 23, students used the hashtag #notfearED to tweet their favorite recovery and self-love songs for Music Monday. Many students from the university, as well as different colleges, posted songs and personal statements.
This was the first time the university’s Project HEAL chapter hosted events for NEDA Week. They applied to the national chapter last May. After receiving approval, they gathered the members and support they needed to launch the new chapter, McElhaney said.
“I’m most proud of us spreading our message and getting our name out there,” said Klatt. “It’s hard as a new group on campus and we have had successful fundraisers and NEDA Week went well also. It feels amazing to have support and to raise money for such a great cause.”
Kristina Saffran and Liana Rosenman founded Project HEAL’s national chapter. “We want to diminish society’s obsession with body image by encouraging people to accept their bodies,” Saffran and Rosenman said on their website.
In the United States alone, 30 million people will be impacted by an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Eating disorders can include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues, according to the NEDA Week’s website.
“We aren’t just a support group. We’re more centered on raising money and changing the norms that are in this diet culture,” McElhaney said.