This article is the third in a three-part series. The first revealed the prevalence of eating disorders at PLNU through Residential Life and faculty. The second found that nutrition and dietetics majors were at a higher risk for eating disorders than their peers.
For students with eating disorders, the issue isn’t always food, according to local nutritionists and psychologists, but genetics and the environment. Even more than that, the church struggles to handle eating disordered behavior.
“[Counseling] sometimes is hard for parents who have a very strong, safe system that they would say, ‘Let’s go to the pastor.’ I’m not saying don’t go to the pastor. Absolutely, have a chat,” said Kris Lambert, an adjunct nursing professor at PLNU and a psychiatric nurse for 30-35 years. Lambert currently works at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “That support system is everything.”
Lambert said people must remember that mental health and mental illness are brain disorders not something people do to be irritating.
“There are changes in the brain that occur,” she said. “So to say we should just pray about it, you know, you’re not going to do that with let’s say cancer…You know what I mean?”
Rebecca Bass-Ching, a certified eating disorder specialist and supervisor, said issues with body image are common even in the faith community.
“How do we deal with those struggles? Because we all have them. Find me one person who has never had a bad body image experience,” said Bass-Ching. “So it’s like, how do we respond, especially in a faith community when you’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t like how God made me.’…Then the shame hits and challenges your faith by asking ‘What kind of Christian are you if you are not grateful for the body God gave you? Other people seem to be fine.’”
Bass is the founder and director of Potentia Family Therapy, Inc., a local practice that provides personalized outpatient care using different couple, family and group therapies that heal people physically, emotionally, socially and spiritually. She said sometimes leaders and people in the faith community might unintentionally do more harm than good. She was also the founding president of the San Diego chapter of the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals.
“I think when we see someone struggling it makes us uncomfortable too. We want to fix it,” said Bass-Ching. “I still work with men and women who believe they are that exception to God’s love. Many think, ‘I know my story and how can anyone love this?’ I believe people feel that way; we’ve all been there. In my work with those who have faith, my role is to clear the way so God can be the ultimate healer… if we expose our pain, share vulnerable stories, we are so drawn to that. Vulnerability is the last thing we want to show, but the first thing we want to see in others.”
Bass-Ching said that eating disorders strip people of themselves.
“I spend a lot of time with my clients talking about where they’re stuck,” said Bass-Ching. “The eating disorder can rob someone of their identity. It almost becomes a toxic best friend. It’s a way to cope. Eating disorders are not about the food, but they are about the food because you need food to live, which is why a specialized treatment team is needed to address mind, body and soul issues.”
Many eating disorders are genetic, due to brain chemistry, how the body registers being full or the natural drive to eat, said Margaret Wing-Peterson, an assistant professor in family and consumer sciences at PLNU.
Unfortunately, Wing-Peterson said the stigma and shame associated with eating disorders distorts how people view them.
“We don’t do that to people who have depression or we shouldn’t,” said Wing-Peterson. “We don’t blame the victim for the depression. We don’t say, just snap out of it. So why don’t we look at it as something like that, as a medical condition that can be fatal? It has a very high rate of mortality for psychiatric condition, anorexia nervosa. So you don’t blame the victim, you don’t say ‘It’s because you want to be.’ Understanding a little more about the nature of it and getting help, somebody who will listen and try to support them.”
Bass-Ching said that a huge component of disorder is genetics, but other things are at play.
“Anxiety is a huge feeder emotion to food and body issues and that is reflective through genetic loading for many,” said Bass-Ching. “They’ve [studies] also found that perfectionism and low self worth and obsessive compulsive tendencies are also hard wired. And when something is stressful like an event or trauma, family issues and culture come together, it’s kind of a nice little Petri dish for developing an eating disorder.”
Wing-Peterson said an eating disorder sometimes begins with triggers that point people toward coping behaviors.
“When people are getting treatment, it’s not just helping them feel like the enemy is not on the plate, but to feel more comfortable in their own bodies and their own skins,” Wing-Peterson said. “So that means that when they’re in treatment, it’s not just the dietitian, it’s also the psychiatrist, it’s also the family therapist, because oftentimes it has to do with family dynamics or social dynamics that the person was raised in or surrounded by.”
Katelyn Mazza, a senior dietetics major, spends two days a week for four to five hours working with 10-18 year-olds, as a diet technician in the Center for Discovery, a La Jolla residential treatment facility for eating disorders. She said she has to remind clients that no foods are bad and it takes time to reset that mentality.
“It goes back to intuitiveness,” Mazza said. “I feel like so many people can kind of have an disorder but it’s not a full blown problem because it’s not like they’re underweight or it’s not like they are that obsessive about it, but just the mindset can easily turn into that kind of problem…Very few people eat intuitively and are not afraid of things.”
Crystal Karges, a 2007 PLNU alumna, received her degree in dietetics and minored in biology. She currently runs her own San Diego private practice specializing in eating disorder treatment and recovery. She said if students can get the help they need, they could be freed from the constraints of a disorder and really live.
“Life is more than just merely attempting to survive from one day to the next but to truly thrive and reach your potential,” said Karges. “If you have an eating disorder, do not wait to get help. Take the steps to get the help you need. Talk to someone you trust. Utilize the resources you have, such as the Wellness Center on campus, to get connected to treatment. No matter your circumstances, your life is valuable and worthy of recovery and freedom from an eating disorder.”