INDIAN RIVER COUNTY – Eating disorders can be deadly, and, taken as a whole, are the most deadly mental health condition of all, according to the Indian River County Mental Health Association.
Only in recent years have services become available in the area for those suffering from such conditions needed, including intensive therapies and group counseling.
Anne Lanier, the mother of a Vero Beach resident who died at 29 of anorexia, donated $100,000 to the Mental Health Association in 2008 to create programs of education and treatment for eating disorders.
She is now working with hotelier Boris Gonzalez who hopes to open a “recovery residence” for persons with eating orders here early next year.
Gonzalez’ work with alcohol and substance abuse has made him aware of the need for such a program.
For years an alcoholic himself, he forged from his own experience with addiction and recovery a passion for helping others. His Gonzalez Recovery Residences, which include the Villa Mizner house on 28th Ave in Vero Beach, offer comfortable, stylish living for residents completing a round-the-clock 12-step recovery program.
“At the transitional homes at Gonzalez Recovery Residences, some of these clients also have what is called a co-existing disorder and often it is an eating disorder,” said Gonzalez. “I also have people telling me all the time about a family member who needs that kind of help. It requires a unique setting, especially if someone has been sent away and returns here.”
Working with the MHA and others to bring clinical help with eating disorders to his substance abuse clients, he already provides transportation to therapy and group counseling sessions.
He is still looking for the right person to run the program he is developing for an eating disorder house in Vero Beach. The house will feature a 24-hour program, an on site psychologist and access to medical care.
Gonzalez also plans to host the MHA’s biggest yearly fundraising event for 2011, “A Tropical Night in Martinique” at Maison Martinque on March 5, 2011.
“Vero is a great place and in the last few years we’ve made tremendous improvement with services for mental health issues. But we need something more for the eating disorders,” he said.
Lanier, the mother of Becky Streetman, agrees.
“When a person who is very ill has intensive treatment, often somewhere else for in-patient therapy, they change their thinking and get better, have hope,” she said. “But if they return home to the same setting they had before, it is so easy to slip back, to pick up those old habits of mind and begin doing the same things again. A transitional residential setting would be wonderful. I truly think something like that could have made a difference for my daughter.”
She recalls her family’s struggle. When her daughter’s dangerous behaviors with food were first discovered during her middle school years, Vero Beach had no counseling available.
“We’ve a come a long way as a community since then, but what Boris is doing is something we need.”
Gonzalez hopes a transitional home setting will help those who have changed their behavior, but still need assistance as well as those who are just beginning.
“I want to create a group living, healthy family environment where people can get closer to real recovery,” he said.
Lanier’s donation paid for hours of intensive clinical training for MHA therapists.
Dr. Joann Hendelman, chair of the Board of Directors for The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, and Chief of the Department of Psychology for St. Mary’s and Good Samaritan medical centers, led a team who provided more than 30 hours of training.
Last year the MHA created a video featuring Streetman’s story, “Dying to Fit In” that ran on public television station WXEL and was distributed to local schools. They now also run a new 60-second spot about eating disorders on cable television as part of their “It’s Okay to get Help” campaign aimed at early intervention for mental health problems.
They focus on the most at-risk groups for eating disorders, children and adolescents.
“In our culture young people are under such pressure to look at certain way,” says Director of Development and Operations Manager Patti Nugent. “Just look at this week’s interview with actress Mila Kunis for the film Black Swan, where she starved herself to 95 pounds.”
“In real life, it looked disgusting,” the actress told the E! Entertainment channel. “But in photographs and on film, it looked amazing.”
The Mental Health Association has a relationship with treatment centers throughout the country, including the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, near Pompano Beach.
“These conditions are insidious with long range consequences,” says Adrienne Ressler, National Training Director for Renfrew, which has the oldest inpatient program in the United States. “People become isolated even within their own families. It becomes a secret. Once they are really sick, blood work becomes very important, and problems with dehydration and electrolyte imbalances require a lot on monitoring.”
A new group for families who either suspect they have or already have a member with a eating disorder has just started at the Mental Health Association.
“We have overeaters as well as families where non-eating is the issue.”
Being pro-active is the best approach, says Kristine Sarkauskas, MHA President and CEO.
“There is so much money spent on treatment and information once a family is already in crisis,” she said “Education and prevention is the way to go. With eating disorders families need more information and earlier recognition of the problems.”