Starving children: Food issues strike early
July 11, 2004
Boston Herald

A celebrity connection to a disease often brings an ailment out of the shadows. But even before Mary-Kate Olsen, 18, made headlines this past week when she reportedly sought help for anorexia, the phones at Walden Behavioral Care in Waltham were busy.

"Our in-patient unit, for years, took patients 16 years old and older, but we have gotten so many calls and there is such a desperate need, that we recently got approval from the state to treat (eating disorder) patients 13 years old and older," said Dr. James Greenblatt, medical director of the Waltham facility that specializes in treating eating disorders, mental illness and addictions.

While much attention has been focused lately on the nation's obesity epidemic, statistics show that young women starving themselves also is a large, and potentially deadly, problem.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports up to 3.7 percent of females will suffer anorexia in their lifetime. Other statistics show that between 5 and 10 percent of anorexics will die from complications, giving it one of the highest death rates of any psychiatric illness.

Most experts believe anorexia is partly genetic and also triggered by social factors.

"In middle school is when we start seeing the disorder," Greenblatt said. "That's when (the girls) are bombarded by boys, magazines and everything else."

Greenblatt has treated young women who are so obsessive compulsive - a key part of the disorder - that they will restrict themselves to 499 calories a day, with one recent patient not consuming more than ice coffee and a banana.

Juliet, a Walden patient who asked that her real name not be used, says her problem started at 15, when she she was a 210-pound unhappy freshman who struggled under a controlling mother. A comment her mom made about her weight, she said, triggered her to obsessively start researching diets, go on diet pills and limit herself to "below semi-starvation," consuming little more than a can of soup, tiny salad and a handful of crackers a day.

"It's your control over everything in your life, but the ironic part," she said, "is it becomes your life."

"It was like a tape playing all the time in your head. It was counting, counting, counting (calories)," she said.

She was hospitalized, did well for a year maintaining a "healthy weight" of about 122 pounds for her 5-foot-5 inch frame, then relapsed and ended up recently at Walden, where she has received anti-depressants and a lot of counseling.

Juliet, now 17, was discharged Thursday at 114 pounds with a "lot of work" ahead of her, a medical plan for close follow-up, and a determination to stay healthy.

"The first steps you can take to bettering your life is actually acknowledging you could have a disorder, to talk about it, and to not feel ashamed," she said. "It's going to make you a lot stronger and insightful in the end."