Lauren Cloninger told herself she was just eating healthy.
When strangers commented on the then-13-year-old’s weight loss, she was flattered — and when friends left a note in her locker saying they were worried about her, she brushed it off.
“I just replied back with, ‘Oh, there’s no problem,’” she said. “I was just repeating the mantra I had in my head.”
But Cloninger, now a 20-year-old psychology major at UNC, said by the time she was in the eighth grade, her parents and doctors realized she was anorexic.
After nutritionist sessions failed to help, Clonginger’s parents sent her from Cherryville to an Arizona clinic on a psychiatrist’s recommendation. She spent 90 days gaining weight and doing therapy — and though she said it didn’t end her struggle, it was what she needed to start getting better.
As UNC recognizes National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, campus experts and eating disorder activists say they hope the campaign encourages others like Cloninger to reach out for help.
But even as campus-wide events promote positive body image and showcase services, high costs and limited insurance coverage could keep students from treatment.
Campus nutrition specialist Antonia Hartley said Counseling and Wellness Services has been promoting events ranging from Greek Groove, a fundraising dance competition, to presentations in the Pit as part of the awareness week. Wednesday, a dining services nutritionist will set up an information table about breaking food myths at Lenoir Dining Hall during lunch.
Hartley said she and other nutritionists serve students who have issues with bulimia, anorexia and binge eating by teaching them how to eat to maintain a healthy weight. She said her free service is just part of a treatment.
“It’s the gold standard of treatment — dietician, physician, mental health therapist,” she said.
Amy Leach, a campus clinical social worker who works with eating disorders, said students can schedule an assessment and staff will help pair them with a long-term counselor in the community.
“Often students with eating disorders aren’t appropriate for short-term counseling,” she said.
She said she often refers students to the UNC Eating Disorders Program, which started in 2003 and is led by Dr. Cynthia Bulik, a professor at UNC.
The program provides outpatient counseling, 12 inpatient beds, partial hospitalization and other services — including trial treatments like couples counseling, which partners attend to help an anorexic spouse.
Bulik said such opportunities are a benefit of being located on a research campus.
“Our research informs our clinical practice, and our clinical practice informs our research,” she said. “Nobody else on the planet has this treatment.”
Prior to the program’s creation, North Carolina lacked a comprehensive center — as Rita Robbins, a Chapel Hill real estate agent and single mother of four, learned when her daughter, Jennifer McLamb, nearly died of anorexia.UNC
At the hospital, Robbins heard personnel saying they couldn’t help McLamb — and that pushed her to action.
“When you have a child’s life on the line, you can make miracles happen,” she said.
Robbins made calls to find government funds to send McLamb to New York for treatment she couldn’t access in-state.
But Robbins didn’t stop when McLamb was safe in the hospital where she would spend 8 months gaining weight and recovering.
Instead, she created the Anorexia and Bulimia Foundation of North Carolina to address the treatment gap. With help from the state legislature, the group raised funds to start the endowment that brought Bulik to UNC.
“She has developed the best eating disorder treatment center — period,” Robbins said. “We’re so blessed to have her.”
Bulik said though the center offers top-notch treatment, not everyone can access it.
“Don’t believe anybody when they say parity exists, because it doesn’t,” she said. “The single most distressing thing about my job is when an insurance company tries to kick someone out of the hospital prematurely.”
She said often, insurance companies won’t cover or will only partly cover expensive treatments — therapy sessions range from $180 to $240 per session and one day of inpatient services costs $1,625 — and many people don’t know to appeal for funds.
Cloninger said her family met with insurance issues when she was in treatment.
“They said to them it looked like I needed 10 days of treatment,” she said. “Which was complete bulls—t, because I was sick enough to need a feeding tube.”
She said the company then refused to pay for even the 10 days, but her father appealed.
“It happens to many people. At least we had insurance,” she said.
But Leach said Pearce and Pearce, Inc., UNC’s student insurance company, covers the expenses at most community mental health providers she sets students up with. She said co-pays for outpatient visits are usually between $20 and $30.
Bulik said when parity is limited, some alternatives exist.
She said those who can’t afford therapy or inpatient services can sometimes participate in free clinical trials or visit less expensive, non-specific local clinics.
“Typically, you need treatment,” she said. “Never brush off an eating disorder, or think that people are going to get over it.”
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