Eating Disorder Specialist Joins University Counseling Center

New staff clinician provides on-campus support and education about disordered eating and body image.

Nancy Cass
The University Counseling Center's Eating Disorder Specialist Coordinator Nancy Cass advises students to put their health first. "It can be a stressful time," she said. "But your health has to be your main priority."
February 19, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

Nancy Cass joined the staff of the George Washington University Counseling Center this month as GW’s first eating disorder services coordinator.

In this role, Ms. Cass, a licensed clinical social worker, will provide specialized counseling to students and work with university partners to support and educate the campus community about disordered eating and body image issues.

“I wanted to come to a university because I think that eating disorders are very misunderstood and are often seen as a superficial issue,” she said. “In reality it is one of the most severe mental illnesses and it has the highest mortality rate.”

According to the National Eating Disorder Association, which recently conducted the 2012 Collegiate Survey Project, eating disorders among college-age women have risen from 10 to 20 percent and from four to 10 percent among men in the last decade.

“Eating disorders are a significant concern on most college campuses because this is the age range and population that struggles with these issues,” UCC Director Silvestro Weisner said. “Like many universities and counseling centers, GW wants to make an effort to provide directed services and care.”

A graduate of Kenyon College and Columbia University School of Social Work, Ms. Cass spent more than four years working for the Renfrew Center of New York, an eating disorder facility with 15 locations nationwide, including one in Bethesda, Md. As a primary and outpatient therapist she provided individual, group and family therapy, as well as meal support for patients.

Eating disorders typically reveal themselves during adolescence and the median age of patients is typically 21 and 22, she said.

“While eating disorders come from something much more deeply rooted, they usually need triggers,” Ms. Cass said. “Things like going away to school for the first time, leaving home and managing your meals and exercise schedule don’t necessarily cause an eating disorder, but they can bring it out.”

Ms. Cass said she will work with Student Health Service to create resources that address the medical and mental effects of eating disorders, as treatment usually requires consultation with a therapist, a nutritionist and a psychiatrist. She will also facilitate referrals for students who require higher levels of care. 

Ms. Cass recently spoke at the GW Muslim Student Association’s mental health awareness event and she plans to collaborate with more student organizations such as Students Promoting Eating Disorder Awareness and Knowledge (SPEAK GW).

SPEAK GW, the university chapter of the national SPEAK organization, was founded in 2012.  The student-run group is dedicated to educating the campus community about eating disorders while also reducing the stigma associated with seeking help.

“The addition of Ms. Cass as the eating disorder services coordinator is a significant step forward in the ongoing efforts to enhance the mental health services offered to students,” said Greg Rheault, SPEAK GW staff advisor and director of the Center for Student Engagement.

“I envision a close working relationship between the student organization members, UCC, Student Health Service, the Center for Student Engagement, GW Athletics and other university partners who are working collaboratively to improve mental health support services for students,” he added.

To aid those efforts, the School of Public Health and Health Services will host a week of events to raise awareness for eating disorders, Feb. 24-28, in collaboration with SPEAK GW, UCC and SHS.

Ms. Cass will also speak on a panel following a discussion with “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski on Feb. 25.

“I want the students to know that we are here to start a dialogue and try to help,” Ms. Cass said. “The fact that GW has created a specialized role to meet the needs of people struggling with eating disorders speaks a lot for the university’s awareness of the importance of recognizing mental health issues.”