School of Medicine

College students access eating disorders therapy via phone app

More than 13% of women and 3.6% of men on college campuses have an eating disorder of some kind, but fewer than 20% of those affected ever receive treatment due to lack of available clinicians and the stigma associated with seeking help. New research led by eating disorders experts at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis indicates a phone app may help change that.

In a study involving nearly 700 women on 27 U.S. college campuses, including Washington University in St. Louis, the researchers determined that a phone-based app that delivers a form of cognitive behavioral therapy was an effective means of intervention in addressing eating disorders. Those who used the app reported a decline over time in symptoms, including binge eating, purging, using diuretics, and concerns about weight and shape, as well as improvements in depression and anxiety, which often accompany eating disorders.

The findings are published Aug. 31 in the journal JAMA Network Open.

“College students are busy and often don’t have spare time to seek the help they need, and many college counseling centers aren’t equipped with clinicians who are trained in treating eating disorders, so we believe digital interventions like this one can dramatically increase access to care,” said first author Ellen E. Fitzsimmons-Craft, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry. “In our study, this digital phone app was associated with dramatic increases in access to treatment. And in cognitive behavioral therapy, we know the app is providing a therapy that’s proven to help.”

The study focused on women on college campuses via a questionnaire that evaluated whether each woman was at risk for an eating disorder, such as binge eating disorder or bulimia nervosa. It did not include women with anorexia nervosa because they are more likely to benefit from a different treatment approach…

…Women who were randomly assigned to use the cognitive behavioral therapy app had access to content that was designed to help them challenge and change unhelpful ways of thinking and behaving. The app also provided participants with the support of a coach, who sent text messages to help the participants stay motivated to use the program and apply concepts they were learning through the app to their daily lives.

“One striking finding was that so many women assigned to the digital intervention actually used the phone app, and it helped to reduce their symptoms, such as marked concerns about their shape and weight, body esteem issues, and binge eating or purging,” said principal investigator Denise Wilfley, PhD, the Scott Rudolph University Professor of Psychiatry, who led the study along with co-principal investigator C. Barr Taylor, MD, an emeritus professor of psychiatry at Stanford University and research professor at Palo Alto University.

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