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How many more will slip through the cracks? Navigating Bakersfield with an eating disorder

The Bakersfield Californian - 4/22/2018

April 22--Paige Atkinson was trying to get better. During her junior year at Independence High School, she was trying to study for tests and navigate the obstacles high school is chock-full of, while battling something bigger: an eating disorder coming for her life.

But fighting a monster like that with no weapons is challenging.

Guidance counselors, therapists, nutritionists and dietitians, general practitioners, parents and teachers were all dead-ends. For Atkinson, it seemed like the light at the end of the tunnel didn't exist in Bakersfield.

"I needed extreme intervention. I couldn't do it in a home environment," Atkinson said.

In order to get that intervention Atkinson needed to go to an inpatient facility in Los Angeles, which subsequently forced her to withdraw from high school and graduate a year later than she was supposed to.

Inpatient facilities aren't a cure-all. Recovery is lifelong for many with eating disorders, and Atkinson is still searching for support groups and outpatient facilities in Bakersfield and Kern County. Both Bakersfield College and Cal State Bakersfield have counseling and nursing staff to help cope with eating disorders and a variety of other mental health problems.

Jennifer Shafer, an advocate for eating disorder treatment and senior fellow at The Meadows Ranch, in Wickenburg, Ariz., said a multidisciplinary approach to treating eating disorders is key. Shafer has also struggled with an eating disorder and attributes much of her recovery to multidisciplinary treatment and an inpatient facility.

"You really need a team," Shafer said. She said the ideal team would consist of a doctor, an expert dietitian, an internist, a therapist and a 12-step or support group. A team which exists at both the facility Atkinson attended in Los Angeles and The Meadows Ranch.

"It really impacts all of your body," Shafer said. "Specialists and specialized treatment is key."

Atkinson, now a second-year student at BC, said at times the recovery process is dismal and she would've like to have a wall to lean on. But that wall -- a partial or half-day program or ward -- is at least 2 1/2 hours from her reach.

The resources in Bakersfield are scarce. And how many more will come up against the same resource blocks that Atkinson did?

A Google search for eating disorder services and programs in Bakersfield will populate a list as robust as a phone book. But look closely and those rehabilitation services aren't specialized to eating disorders.

Many are links to nutritionists and dietitians, which is a half-baked solution for treating a multidimensional problem like eating disorders.

Shafer, who has also written three books on her account with eating disorders, said whatever help you can get is helpful. But anorexia has the highest mortality rate and a team approach is the best way to heal.

Diane Campbell, a registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders, said she considers herself an access point to other treatments.

"It's not a great network," Campbell said. "There needs to be more, I'm not sure what will happen, but something needs to happen."

Campbell already collaborates with many therapists in the area, by referring her patients to them, as eating disorders are complex and need more than a diet regimen.

And there are only a few psychologists that specialize in eating disorders in Bakersfield. The Kern County Behavioral Health and Bakersfield Behavioral Hospital Health Care Hospital have wards for those in mental health crises, but none that are set up to handle the all-consuming, destructive monster of an eating disorder.

Atkinson said without her inpatient treatment, she would've died. She had to be force-fed. Her life as she knew it completely halted for months.

Campbell said an eating disorder completely disrupts a person's life.

"We need the right staff and we need to have more of them," Campbell said, of eating disorder treatments in Bakersfield.

When Campbell first came to Bakersfield, about 10 years ago, she tried forming a support group. But after numerous emails and phone calls sent out, no one showed up.

"It's a shamed space; it's hard for them to even go to a primary care doctor," Campbell said. "There's a mask of an eating disorder that they hide behind because they don't want anyone to know they binge, purge or restrict."

That shamefulness makes it difficult to measure the number of people who suffer from an eating disorder, Campbell said. Nationally, at least 1 in 20 women have an eating disorder.

Between 0.03 percent and 1 percent of women have anorexia nervosa, and 3 percent have a binge-eating disorder, according to the Academy for Eating Disorders. It also said between 4 percent and 20 percent practice unhealthy eating patterns like binging, restricting and purging.

Seventy percent of people don't seek treatment and those 30 percent who do treatment suffer because they don't have quality access to care, Shafer said.

One of the few resources that isn't a dietary program is the local Overeaters Anonymous group, which has approximately 100 members locally.

Members like Rhonda R., who had doctors prescribe countless diets, a few bouts with Weight Watchers and other fad diets.

"It's the mental twists that make me go back to old habits," Rhonda said. She attributes her loss of 224 pounds to the help of Overeaters Anonymous.

Overeaters Anonymous, or OA, is available for anyone, not only those dealing with binge-eating disorder or eating habits. Shafer said she needed the guidance of a support group to know she wasn't alone and the only one doing certain things with her food.

"It's a head-and-heart problem," Rhonda said. "The real problem was between my ears."

However, scattered resources like Campbell's treatment and OA, creates an alienating disconnect for individuals like Atkinson who need a team and a multidisciplinary approach to help them survive.

Atkinson said the scarcity of resources and paradigm of treating eating disorders though diets and nutritional plans is like putting on a Band-Aid.

Campbell agrees that the problem is multifaceted and can't be treated with a dietitian alone.

"It's incredibly frustrating," Atkinson said of the lack of resources for eating disorders in Bakersfield. "If the health care system ignores it, it's ignoring a large number of people."

The lack of resources in Bakersfield has left a gaping void into which individuals like Atkinson are slipping, with no escape.

"People are not exempt from cancer, diabetes, the flu," Atkinson said. "Those are all a part of health and we have resources for those here."

Kasey Meredith can be reached at 661-395-7382.


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