Treating the causes, not the symptoms

 

Ireland’s first dedicated residential treatment centre for eating disorders opens today, writes ALISON HEALY

LOIS BRIDGES will be the first dedicated residential treatment centre for eating disorders in Ireland when it opens its doors in Sutton, Dublin, today.

The need for more beds to treat the illness was highlighted four years ago in the Government mental health plan A Vision for Change, but there are still fewer than 20 beds for treating patients with eating disorders between St John of God’s, St Patrick’s and St Vincent’s hospitals.

“Statistics say 200,000 people are suffering with this illness in Ireland,” says Teresa Moorhead, Lois Bridges’ director of clinical services. “And of all the psychiatric diagnoses, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. There are 80 eating disorder-related deaths a year in Ireland. But it doesn’t make the front pages of the newspaper.”

Lois Bridges is a restored Georgian house near the sea that has deliberately moved away from the hospital setting to treat disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating. It has six beds and offers seven-day-a-week care that focuses on treating the reasons behind the eating disorder. “Eating disorders are just a symptom and we want to treat the cause,” Moorhead says.

“So many people with eating disorders have had some major trauma in their childhood, such as sexual abuse. Bullying is a huge factor. So is low self-esteem.” Focusing on food and calorie-counting diverts people from dealing with the underlying problem.

The Lois Bridges team includes specialised practitioners in psychiatry, psychology, psychotherapy, medical, nursing, social work, family therapy and dietetic fields.

It provides seven-day-a-week care because, she says, a patient could be doing very well during the week and then arrive home for the weekend “and fall apart”. Patients will typically stay at the centre for four to eight weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. This will be followed up with outpatient care and therapy sessions for up to a year.

But the care doesn’t come cheap. Residential treatment costs €4,500 per week and is not yet covered by health insurance. The team is in discussion with the major health insurers to have the treatment covered and Moorhead says she believes it will happen as the centre has been approved by the Mental Health Commission and is now on the register of approved centres alongside major psychiatric hospitals.

In the past three weeks, she has received dozens of queries from people with VHI cover trying to access treatment. She accepts that it is a costly treatment without insurance, but encourages anyone seeking treatment to contact the centre to see if it can help.

Angela* will be one of the centre’s first patients. She developed anorexia in her early teens after years of sexual abuse by an uncle who has since died. She recalls how she became deeply uncomfortable when puberty began and she started to get comments about her figure from men, and from her uncle in particular.

“I felt I had no control over what happened to me,” she says. “So I began to control my intake of food and control my weight. My anorexia allowed me to remain undeveloped. I had no breasts and was not attractive to men.”

Food also reminded her of the abuse as her uncle used to bribe her with food and sweets. “The association with food sickened me to my stomach.” Now 25, she has received treatment in psychiatric hospitals and from therapists but nothing ever worked.

“I certainly made some improvements but after I left I could not hold it all together,” she explains. “Pandora’s Box was opened regarding the trauma in my childhood and I was left to deal with it.” She was referred to a counselling service, but after spending six months on a waiting list she says she was “unreachable”.

She believes Lois Bridges will help her to deal with the abuse and finally put her eating disorder behind her. “I have been dead for a long time. I have missed out on so much of life.

“In order to address all of this I have to stop hiding behind my eating disorder which I know will be difficult, but I have faith in the Lois Bridges team. All I want in life is to be normal. Not one other thing.”

*Not her real name

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This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. See www.bodywhys.ie for further information