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Student Medical Leave for Eating Disorder Treatment: How to Know It’s Time [UPDATED]

A Student Medical Leave of Absence (SMLOA) is a formal arrangement that allows a student to temporarily withdraw from their academic studies due to health-related reasons. This type of leave is typically granted when a student is facing significant medical issues or mental health challenges that impede their ability to participate in their academic responsibilities.

Taking an SMLOA is a crucial option for students facing health challenges, including getting treatment for an eating disorder, as it allows them to focus on their well-being without compromising their academic record. Once a student is ready to return to their studies, they can follow the re-entry procedures outlined by their institution to resume their education.

Eating Disorders and School: Why & How School Complicates Eating Disorders

Academic Pressure: The high academic expectations, pressure to excel, and the desire to achieve academic success can lead to stress and anxiety. For some individuals, the stress of school can trigger or exacerbate a student’s eating disorder symptoms as a way to cope with the pressure.

Social Comparison: Schools can foster a competitive environment where students compare themselves to their peers academically, socially, and physically. This constant comparison can contribute to body dissatisfaction and fuel the desire to control weight and appearance through disordered eating behaviors.

Bullying and Social Isolation: Bullying and social isolation at school can have a significant impact on mental health, including the development or worsening of eating disorders.

School Athletics: Students who participate in an activity or sport associated with a ‘lean aesthetic’ are at elevated risk for eating disorders and disordered behaviors, especially for those who identify as female. Athletes who believe the sport’s ‘body ideal’ will improve their performance may find themselves turning to unhealthy and dangerous behaviors to manipulate their weight, build, and shape.

Diet Culture and Body Image Issues: Schools may inadvertently contribute to diet culture by promoting certain body ideals or focusing on weight and appearance in health or physical education classes. This can reinforce unrealistic beauty standards and contribute to body dissatisfaction, which may trigger or perpetuate eating disorders.

Peer Influence: Peer pressure and the desire to fit in with a particular social group can influence eating behaviors. For example, students may feel pressured to participate in restrictive diets or engage in disordered eating habits to be accepted by certain peer groups.

Limited Time for Self-Care: The demanding schedules of students can leave little time for self-care and relaxation. Lack of self-care and coping mechanisms can lead to increased stress, which may exacerbate eating disorder symptoms.

Lack of Awareness and Understanding: Some educational institutions may lack proper education and awareness about eating disorders. This can lead to a lack of support and resources for students struggling with these issues.

Absence of Mental Health Support: Schools may not always have adequate mental health resources or may not prioritize mental health as much as academic performance. This can make it challenging for students to seek help for their eating disorder or other mental health concerns.

When Should I Consider a Leave of Absence?

Making the decision to take a medical leave from school to seek eating disorder treatment can be challenging and overwhelming, but also life-altering and lifesaving.

This complex decision should be made with the guidance of a trained eating disorder professional. If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the below, please reach out to 1-800-RENFREW to schedule an assessment.

  • Your relationship with food, exercise, or your body are interfering with your social and academic experiences.
  • You have medical complications as a result of your relationship with food or exercise.
  • You have had significant weight fluctuations in the past six months.
  • You are unable to take your prescribed medications regularly.
  • Your mood or anxiety are having a negative effect on your relationships and/or your academic performance.
  • You are engaging in self-injury and/or substance abuse.
  • You are experiencing suicidal thoughts.
  • Professionals or loved ones have recommended taking a leave of absence to focus on treatment.

Eating disorders are dangerous and potentially deadly illnesses. Early interventions have been shown to increase the chances for a full recovery. Treatment for any eating disorder should be considered urgent and be prioritized, even if symptoms appear to be mild.

Medical Risks of Eating Disorders

  • Cardiac arrhythmia (i.e., heartbeat that is irregular, too fast, or too slow)
  • Fainting and dizziness
  • Malnutrition
  • Gastrointestinal complications
  • Hormonal issues
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold intolerance
  • Amenorrhea
  • Early onset osteoporosis/osteopenia
  • Dental erosion
  • Hair loss, growth of lanugo
  • Impaired immune system
  • Abnormal lab results
  • Seizures

How to Pursue a Medical Leave

The process of applying for a Student Medical Leave of Absence can vary depending on the educational institution’s policies. Typically, the student needs to contact the school’s designated office (such as the Registrar’s Office or the Office of Student Affairs) to initiate the process such as the following:

High School

  • Guidance Counselor
  • Teacher
  • Principal

College or University

  • Dean of Students
  • Student Health Center/College Counseling Center
  • Office of Disability Services

It’s important to note that different educational institutions may have different policies regarding the impact of a medical leave on a student’s academic standing, financial aid, and graduation timeline. Therefore, students considering a medical leave should carefully review their institution’s guidelines and consult with academic advisors or support staff to understand the implications fully.

Students returning from a medical leave often report that it was beneficial and supported their academic goals. If you have an illness for a temporary time, you have the right to reasonable accommodations for that illness.


In the school setting, students encounter and navigate various risk factors associated with the development and maintenance of eating disorders. Medical leave can be an invaluable option for many students, providing them with the accommodations needed to prioritize their recovery. No class, grade, club, or team is worth compromising your mental or physical wellness.

It’s essential for schools to promote a supportive and inclusive environment that prioritizes the well-being of students. Implementing mental health programs, raising awareness about eating disorders and body image issues, and offering accessible support resources can all contribute to a healthier school environment for students. Additionally, reducing academic pressure and fostering a culture of acceptance and understanding can also help mitigate the impact of school-related factors on eating disorders.

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