‘Eating disorders don’t discriminate’: Identifying signs and where to turn for help in Rochester

The Healing Connection located on University Avenue in Rochester (Gio Battaglia / News 8 WROC)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — During National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, organizations in Rochester are trying to break down stereotypes while letting families know where they can turn for help.

The Healing Connection, located on University Avenue, partners with the Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders as well as the Golisano Children’s Hospital to provide eating disorder care for people ages 12 and up.

Clinical Director of the Partial Hospital Program Morgan Camman says eating disorders are not a “one size fits all” diagnosis. She adds there is avoidant restrictive feeding intake, or ARFID, Pica, which essentially means consuming things that are not edible, as well as certain types of binge eating, but the list does not stop there.

Camman says when Healing Connection has patients with these “stereotypical” types of eating disorders, insight and lack thereof are a common denominator that leads patients to not seek treatment until it has gotten to the worst extent.

“A lot of the time people find out about us through their PCP or if they are hospitalized for malnutrition,” Camman said. “They are usually referred to us after they finish their 10 day stay at Golisano Children’s Hospital of refeeding, then come to our partial program, where they are treated for 20 hours a week.”

At the Healing Connection, Camman says they struggle to reach anyone who is not a white, cisgender, straight, female.

“We know eating disorders are not just isolated to that demographic,” Camman said. “Unfortunately, we’re noticing that is who’s commonly being funneled our way. We’ve had sporadic diversity show up, but that’s an area we do want to get more outreach. We know it’s out there, and I think there is elements of culture that also play a role.”

Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders Care Manager Jennifer Dry De Santo emphasized how those in varying cultures can be a big factor of how patients struggle to look a certain way.

“What some cultures put a value on is different,” Dry De Santo said. “I think that plays a role into culture, because one culture values one side versus another side.”

Camman added how body image can be based off of a cultural perspective.

“What is going to be seen as aesthetically pleasing in North America, for instance, is going to be completely different than what you see in Korea,” Camman said. “I’m saying this as a white person, so I only see this subjectively, but what I have understood with the Korean or that more Asian population, is a very thin and kind of waiflike body can be preferred. You can actually be bullied if you’re overdeveloped. If, for a girl, you have a larger chest, they actually will make fun of you because it’s too big. I have heard patients mentioned a lot of them needing, in our culture, thigh gap and things like that, the legs needing to not touch.”

One of Camman’s stronger emphasis was on how social media contributes heavily to their body image group of patients. Videos on apps like TikTok that show someone going to the gym or cooking healthy meals can be severe warnings signs for an eating disorder, rather than the ‘healthier lifestyle’ aesthetic they try to target.

“[Patients] talk about it, as they get more comfortable and say, It’s actually really triggering to watch this person do their exercise routine day in and day out, or that they’re pushing this metabolic tea that’s supposed to help you lose weight,” Camman said. “They would actually admit that their eating disorder would have them purposely watch it, to endorse them to restrict or to purge or to do any eating disorder behaviors.”

Camman also says that instead of purging in the way that the term is commonly associated with vomiting, people on social media are purging with the amount of exercise or glamorizing only eating healthy food or eating certain amounts of it.

The program consists of the patient being in therapy with the Healing Connection, where patients receive help for their therapeutic needs, with coping skills such as CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) and DBT (Dialectal Behavioral Therapy) according to statistics provided by the Healing Connection. And in the Healing Connection’s partial program, they utilize a group called relational therapy.

Relational therapy hypothesizes that eating disorders are a disease from disconnection, according to Camman. She adds it could be a disconnection from self, feelings, family, friends, or even food itself.

“Personally, I have a firm belief that an eating disorder is a symptom of something bigger,” Camman said. “Usually, we see a high prevalence of trauma backgrounds showing up with that. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a very big, predominant diagnosis that an eating disorder sits under almost an umbrella term as a way that one can cope with these thoughts by restricting or purging.”

Camman says the point of relational therapy is to heal those relationships and how a patient’s relationship with food may mirror the relationship they have with others in life, and themselves.

For those who may take note of someone close in their life struggling with their relationship with food, Camman says coming across too strong, even if well intended, could have its downfall.

“Saying That sounds hard or I may not be able to understand what you’re saying, but I can imagine that’s got to be really painful and hard to have something we do every single day, which is eating, be so terrifying for you,” Camman said. “If you come across too strong and say Well, did you eat today? It’s not going to go well. It’s more of just mentioning it by saying Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you? Ask permission rather than immediately jumping in.”

The Western New York Comprehensive Care Center for Eating Disorders has recently launched Project ECHO. The project is a virtual learning community for providers in fields of family and primary care, behavioral and college health, dietitians and sports and athletics leaders.

Organizers of Project ECHO say that participants gain knowledge and are able to increase their skills in preventing, identifying, and responding to disordered earing, body dissatisfaction concerns, and eating disorders.

These sessions are 90-minutes and take place on the first and third Tuesdays of every month from noon to 1:30 p.m. Participants will be met with a presentation of a case, and then discuss as a group how to best handle that situation.

Those interested in registering for Project ECHO can do so here.

Project ECHO also offers sessions for personnel in schools with students K-12. School counselors, classroom and health teachers, food service workers, and other roles are able to play a critical role in identifying and responding to disordered eating and body dissatisfaction.

The sessions for school personnel are 60 minutes, and are held on the second Tuesday of every month from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.

Registration for the school-based Project ECHO can be found here.

Support and hotlines for eating disorders are available anytime through website such as ANAD and National Eating Disorder Awareness.