An Australian-first study from Monash University has found that high-achieving female students whose emotions drive academic success often lead to eating disorders to compensate for negative emotions felt when failing to do well in school.
Dr Jennifer Krafcheck and Dr Leonie Kronborg from the University’s Faculty of Education, who had their findings published in the Roeper Review, covered 14 women who self-identified as high-achievers and recovered from an eating disorder.
Around 3/4 of these women have an ATAR rank of 97 or higher.
All participants developed eating disorders when they were still in secondary schools. Of the 14, 11 had gone through dieting and experienced symptoms from mild eating disorders to clinically-diagnosed anorexia nervosa. The remaining three had symptoms of bulimia.
Krafcheck said that their study suggests that high-achieving female students would seek the same positive emotions they would get from academic success through harmful eating or controlled eating practices.
“In other words, the same emotions that motivate academic achievement might also motivate eating disorders,” Krafchek said.
“Once the participants could no longer depend on academic emotions to feel good, they turned to disordered eating in order to feel better about themselves and fill this massive void with positive emotions”.
How schools can respond
Exam seasons are likely to beckon increased stress and even aggravate mental health issues among students, the study found.
“If we’re able to understand some of the reasons behind this sudden behavioural shift in young high-achieving students, then we’ll be in a better position to administer counselling and coping mechanisms to help them juggle the demands of academic life and positive self-image,” Krafchek said.
“Helping students find joy again, in something other than eating or controlled eating, could be part of their treatment; whether students find that joy as part of a choir or on their learning journey studying a subject they love.”
With finding the link between eating disorders and academic performance, Kronborg for her part said both teachers and counsellors need to be aware of the emotions high-achieving female students feel when they perform well or fail to achieve their expected results.
Schools should also be aware of the food they offer, with research showing links between better student outcomes and cutting junk food intake.