A Call to Community: Appropriate Care for Eating DisordersJanuary 26th, 2016

What’s your hot button? Most of us have one – the issues that impassion our conversations, motivate us to vote and encourage others to vote in local, state and presidential elections. These issues can shape our professional lives as well. For me, that issue is eating disorders. I have dedicated my life’s work to support people and families recovering from this complex and often misunderstood condition. Eating disorders -- such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating disorder – include extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors surrounding weight and food issues. Eating disorders are serious emotional and physical problems that can have life-threatening consequences.

Successfully treating eating disorders takes a community. Now is the time for the Memphis and Midsouth community to pull together in support of loved ones struggling with eating disorders – and the isolation and shame that frequently accompany them.

An eating disorder is a complex cluster of issues. Individuals often have coexisting complications that also require clinical attention. Under-eating (restricting), over-eating (bingeing), and compensatory behaviors (purging or extreme exercising) creates a myriad of health problems that lead to a range of very serious risks over time including diabetes, infertility, clinical depression, dental issues, osteoporosis, and all too often premature death (NEDA, 2015). Eating disorders are chronic conditions that, if not treated appropriately, will likely not rectify themselves. The health consequences of a prolonged eating disorder can be devastating.

1. Look for the warning signs:

  •  Dramatic weight loss.
  •  Preoccupation with weight, food, calories, fat grams, and dieting.
  •  Refusal to eat certain foods, progressing to restrictions against whole categories of food (e.g. no carbohydrates, etc.).
  •  Anxiety about gaining weight or being “fat.”
  •  Denial of hunger.
  •  Development of food rituals (e.g. eating foods in certain orders, excessive chewing, rearranging food on a plate).
  •  Excessive, rigid exercise regimen--despite weather, fatigue, illness, or injury, the need to “burn off” calories taken in.
  •  Withdrawal from usual friends and activities.

2. Have your loved one assessed by professionals trained in the diagnosis and treatment of this complex disease – and don’t wait.

I have found that often families delay clinical assessment, hoping that the problem “is just a stage” and that “she’ll outgrow this”. Eating disorders are complex and require time and commitment to treat. The chance of recovery increases the earlier the behaviors are discovered and diagnosed.

3. Lend your support to the Anna Westin Act, the first ever eating disorders-specific legislation to be introduced with bipartisan support.

Anna Westin was a teenager from  Chaska, Minnesota diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa. Anna’s doctor recommended immediate hospitalization due to her 34 percent body weight loss, but the insurance company told them to take her home, saying treatment wasn’t medically necessary. On February 17, 2000, Anna took her own life in direct relation to her ongoing battle with anorexia. The Anna Westin Act clarifies congressional intent in the implementation of the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008. It underscores the importance of training health professionals on early identification and intervention when precursory symptoms and behaviors arise, provide better treatment coverage to those affected by the disorders, and thereby decreasing out of pocket treatment costs – and shed light on the harmful effects of altered body images in advertising.

Please join me in seeking the commitment of our elected officials to support the Anna Westin Act. Eating disorders are a very real healthcare threat – impacting both mental and physical healthcare costs, and both quality and length of life.It’s going to take the American community’s commitment - families, primary care physicians, schools, elected officials, and healthcare systems - to ensure that we have adequate resources to diagnose, insure, treat, and care for those suffering with eating disorders.

Teri H. McCann, PhD is owner and Clinical Director of Fairhaven Treatment Center, a Memphis-based residential and outpatient treatment facility for eating disorders. You can reach Dr. McCann at 901.757.7979.

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