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Healthy Choices

Support group offers new resource for those with eating disorders

Posted: Friday, July 19, 2002

L indsay, 23, has had an eating disorder since she was 14, and used to go to a support group in Bellingham, Wash., until the group's facilitator quit.

"So I got the members' numbers and we started meeting on our own," said Lindsay, who asked that her last name not be used.

After moving back to Juneau, where she was raised, Lindsay found there was no eating disorder support group and decided to start one. Starting July 24, a group will meet from 7 to 9 p.m. every Wednesday at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church's Undercroft Room at 325 Gold St. downtown.

"Groups offer comfort, a place where people can communicate with others having similar problems," Lindsay said. "It's uplifting for people."

Several eating disorders have been identified, such as anorexia nervosa, characterized by self-starvation and excessive weight loss; binge eating, marked by uncontrolled overeating; and bulimia nervosa, in which a person has a cycle of secretive binging and purging through forced vomiting.

"There's a message to be thin from history, magazines and the media," Lindsay said. "We created the problem ourselves and have too many options and mixed messages. An eating disorder is a coping mechanism."

Lindsay said eating disorders are not only prevalent in young women, but are common among older people and men.

"It's not just a phase," Lindsay said. "The ages of members (in the Bellingham group) ranged from 18 to over 55."

Paul Kraft, dean of students at the University of Alaska Southeast, used to be director of a counseling center, and said eating disorders are a reality for many high school and college students.

"It's prevalent on all university campuses," Kraft said. "It's a real challenge. Beautiful, talented, smart young women just destroy themselves."

Kraft said that often an eating disorder twists families in knots, with parents taking the doors off the bathrooms in the house or accompanying their children to the bathroom so they don't purge.

Very often, an eating disorder is an outward experience of internal trauma, anxiety or depression, Kraft said.

"A support group can be used to encourage and share common experiences," Kraft said. "When people are struggling and get together and talk, there are benefits to sharing with others who understand."

Jessica Menendez, a counselor and trainer in Juneau, is the state coordinator for Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention, an organization that establishes a point of contact for those needing help in Alaska communities.

"I found there was nobody identified for help," Menendez said. "What I was seeking was for community mental health centers across the state to include in their services brochure that they dealt with eating disorders, even if they didn't, so there would be some place a person could look and talk to somebody."

Menendez wants each Alaska community to identify one clinician who would begin to get training to deal with eating disorders, so there is always a place for someone with the disorder to go.

In her practice, Menendez has found inpatient treatment to be important because a person has 24-hour care, monitoring and support.

"Dealing with an eating disorder on an outpatient basis can be problematic when there isn't intense monitoring," Menendez said. "After inpatient treatment, aftercare is strongly recommended, and establishing a support system is critical."

Menendez found putting together an eating disorder support group has been difficult in the past.

"Some are ready for group therapy, others are not, and there are different eating disorders," Menendez said. She said it is not always appropriate to mix people with different disorders.

"That doesn't mean that that level of support can't be achieved through Adult Children of Alcoholics, or the Overeaters Anonymous group here, which has been very supportive," Menendez said.

"There is no one reason for an eating disorder," and she said the addictive behaviors that accompany eating disorders may be helped through a variety of 12-step groups found in Juneau.

If a person is suffering debilitation because of an eating disorder, the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health Inc. can provide a clinical assessment and therapy, said Clinical Director Pat Murphy.

"Normally it's a short-term therapy model with up to five counseling sessions and medication management," Murphy said. "We do refer people to private therapists and maintain a list of about 20 therapists."

Web sites about eating disorders include www.something-fishy.org, www.nationaleatingdisorders.org and www.anad.org.

For more information about the eating disorder support group in Juneau, call 789-2912.

Emily Wescott can be reached at ewescott@juneauempire.com.



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