Tuesday, February 15, 2011

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The Eating for Life Alliance
New Wellesley-based program helps college students with eating disorders

Betsy Lawson writer

in all her years as a social worker, the most stressful situation Dawn Hynes, MSW, has ever faced was shopping for new clothes with a college student recovering from an eating disorder.

“There are so many hidden triggers,” Hynes says, that can fuel the life-threatening disease that is still very misunderstood by the general public.

“My clinical specialty is assisting those who are in denial of the seriousness of their illness,” says Hynes, a Wellesley resident. This includes both the sufferer and his or her family. Males are now estimated to be one in four cases.

To help raise awareness, Hynes and her business partner, Whitney Post, originally from Wayland, have launched the Eating for Life Alliance (ELA) here in Wellesley. Its aim is to promote physical and mental well-being among college students as well as facilitate access to the resources, tools, and best practices for the effective treatment of eating disorders.

The pair has already connected with more than 200 educational institutions across the country as well close to home, including Wellesley College and Babson. Rather than starting from scratch at each institution, however, ELA aims to work with college personnel to see what resources already exist and then fill in the gaps to effectively raise awareness, as well as to intervene when necessary.

According to the national organization Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC), only one in ten sufferers receives treatment. And of those who do receive treatment, only 35 percent is effective. This is because eating disorder specialists are not available in many communities and, overall, there is a lack of coordinated protocols. This despite the fact that, according to the EDC, anorexia (extreme food restriction) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness at around 20 percent.

The Eating for Life Alliance stresses that eating disorders are a serious mental health issue, not simply a phase to grow out of or a way to get attention. But while celebrities will now publicly advocate for previously shunned mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and depression, speaking out about eating disorders is still taboo.

“It’s shrouded in shame,” Post says. Helping to break down this stigma is one reason Post, a former Olympic athlete, talks openly about her own struggle with an eating disorder in her blog “Invisible Victories” (see sidebar: “How ‘healthy’ are the clothes in your closet?”).

Post tells of seeking help at the college counseling service in the early stages of her disease. The practitioner, however, was unfamiliar with eating disorders and the guidance offered was ineffective. Post continued to struggle for years.

“Athletes in particular are set up for eating disorders,” Post says. “They’re trained to change their bodies to become stronger and faster. In weight-restricted sports especially, a thinner body can lead – initially – to greater success. Athletes are dependent on the sport for many of their most important relationships... sports are the organizing principle around which their lives revolve.”

It took years to find the right help, Post says, in part because she was excelling on the outside – both athletically and academically. “But inside I was miserable.” Finally, she found support from others in the throes of the disease who shared about their own experience. “I could relate,” Post says.

Since entering recovery, Post has earned a master’s degree in counseling psychology from Lesley University and has been providing wellness trainings, workshops, and individual coaching to high school, collegiate, and national team athletes. She has also designed and implemented eating disorder treatment programs at Boston-area hospitals.

When Hynes asked her to join the ELA advisory board, Post suggested teaming up instead to more effectively get out the message out, both nationally and locally. ELA support is now being offered at no cost to area residents, and community outreach programs include a free talk at the Wellesley Free Library this spring.

According to Hynes, the lack of public discourse has been part of the problem. Without it, friends and family of those suffering aren’t able to recognize the severity of the illness or know how to effectively intervene. Often, they end up unwittingly abetting a vicious cycle.

“Dieting is often the precursor to an eating disorder,” says Hynes. A healthy conversation when the issue first arises can have positive results. Although many parents fear that talking about an eating disorder will only alienate their teens, the converse is true. Adolescents and young adults are looking for guidance in how to manage the opinions of their peers and the outside pressures to be “perfect” in all facets of their life. Hynes believes that it is the secrecy that often fuels the disease.

“The problem is, if you wait, these thoughts and concerns can lead very quickly to [certain] behaviors, and it is much harder to eliminate a behavior, than to modify your thoughts.” Those teens newly entering college are at a perfect transition point to identify negative behaviors before they take deeper hold, Hynes says. This is why ELA is targeting that age group and providing very practical support, like help with shopping for clothes as an example.

Recalling that stressful day Hynes helped her client shop for new clothes, she spoke of the importance of getting her client through the process of accepting her new body size since achieving a healthier weight during treatment at a residential program. Recovery and self-acceptance was underway, but Hynes knew many possible triggers lay ahead. “Imagine going back to your dorm room and having only ‘skinny clothes’ in your closet? What message does that convey about your new weight?”

If left unchecked, these overwhelming feelings can trigger unhealthy restriction of food or a binging-purging cycle. So, too, can that first visit back through the all-you-can-eat buffet at the college dining hall. Through ELA, Hynes and Post hope to help colleges put support systems in place to help break the devastating cycle of eating disorders sooner rather than later.

For more information, contact: Eating for Life Alliance, 396 Washington Street, Suite 392, Wellesley, MA 02481 or visit: www.eatingforlifealliance.org

How ‘healthy’ are the clothes in your closet?

 

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© 2011 Elm Bank Media | Beth Furman, Publisher | Beth@ElmBankMedia.com