STEVENSVILLE — It’s something everyone goes through.

“Feelings of unworthiness and wanting to control something in your life and not having an outlet to do that. Feeling like you’re not good enough, and wanting to be special and be unique,” according to Sarah French, 21. “It’s not that different from what people deal with every single day, we just tend to deal with it differently than other people do.”

French developed an eating disorder as a teenager and has been attending group therapy sessions at Well of GRACE Ministries in Stevensville for the last six years.

She, along with a group of about 4-7 other girls, meets every other week to try to get to a healthier place.

“It’s just been an incredible sanctuary for me. Just to be able to feel like I can share what I am going through,” French said. “Also even more so just to connect with people. That’s been the most amazing thing about it: connecting with other girls who are going through the same thing as me.”

Well of GRACE has been one of the only places in Southwest Michigan to offer group therapy for girls going through eating disorders, and in the last year, it has been working with Southwestern Medical Clinic Counseling (SMCC) to open a new clinic to combine services for those dealing with eating disorders.

The new clinic, Southwestern Nutritional Wellness, will combine the diagnosing and treatment arm of SMCC and the group and private counseling arm of Well of GRACE. Prior to this, clients had limited local resources or access to a comprehensive outpatient treatment program for eating disorders in Southwest Michigan.

What’s an eating disorder?

Mary Andres, executive director of Well of GRACE Ministries, said eating disorders are different from any other mental health diagnosis.

“Because a person can stop drinking alcohol. They can’t stop eating food,” she said. “And it is so difficult to help someone change, modify their thinking. It’s under the addictions category because it becomes an addiction.”

Eating disorders include anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and “not otherwise specified,” people who don’t meet the textbook definition of having an eating disorder, but have most of the characteristics or behaviors of someone with an eating disorder.

Eating disorders can develop for many different reasons, but a lot of them develop when people are teenagers.

Katie, 18, another girl in one of the therapy groups at Well of GRACE who chose not to share her last name, said she believes teenagers develop these because that’s when they’re trying to figure out who you are.

“You’re trying to find your identity and what you’re good at,” she said. “Sometimes people will find their identity in what they eat or how they exercise. It’s a way of finding an identity and that’s also a struggle everyone goes through when they’re a teen.”

French said it’s also a problem with the messages that young girls are sent.

“It’s just a societal thing to be concerned about our weight and how we look,” she said. “It’s something that’s so engrained in society that it’s abnormal if we just say, ‘well I’m not really worried about being a little over weight’ or ‘I’m going to eat this ice cream and not worry about how much it’s going to affect my thighs.’”

She said said it’d be wonderful if one day society could get there, but being aware of the consequences it can have is a good first step.

Andres said a big thing the group works on is getting to the reason why and when the eating disorder was developed, and what is the truth.

“We often receive family dynamic issues as part of this journey,” she said. “It might be subtle like dad saying, ‘oh that chick is hot.’ That kid is feeling like, ‘I need to change my body in some way to get loved.’ You just never know where that’s coming from or what kind of message was sent or received, and it could have been a goofy comment, but it really stuck with that person.”

Andres said Well of GRACE has been working with women with eating disorders for a solid six years now.

“We’ve worked with women who have been using an eating disorder for 30 years and very much stuck, and girls in their low teens who are very newly into the habits,” she said. “But the cool thing about what we’re offering is: balance, you’re not alone, encouragement, healthy tools, love, care and support. We treat the whole person: mental, emotional, physical and spiritual.”

The stats

Andres estimates that between about 800 and 1,000 people in Berrien County have eating disorders.

She said those statistics are estimates based on the population, because there isn’t a lot of local reliable data on eating disorders because no one has prioritized the topic.

“Then, basically a third of people will move through the illness, a third will manage their illness forever and the other third will die,” Andres said.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

“No body talks about it,” Andres said. “It’s often mislabeled as a heart attack or dehydration or something like that, but the truth is that it’s an eating disorder that took the life of that person.”

She said more than 70 percent will not seek treatment due to stigma, misperceptions, lack of education, diagnosis and access to care.

“With that many people in Berrien County with an eating disorder and now you’re thinking, with the No. 1 killer, these people need help. We need to do something for them. That’s where Well of GRACE is meeting a huge need,” she said.

She said the sooner an eating disorder is caught, the more successful the outcome, but so many things have to work together to get to that point.

Combining services

Southwestern Nutritional Wellness will offer those with eating disorders space to see their therapist, get group therapy, see a dietician, meet with their families and anything else they need to do all in once place.

“We’re trying to find a good system that’s not so overwhelming for any one person and for the family,” Andres said. “Their schedule gets filled up, especially if the kid can’t drive yet.”

The group therapy sessions meet every other week to fit in all of the appointments, extra curricular activities and school if they’re school-aged.

“Often these ladies are high achievers, perfectionistic, so they don’t just do school, they have to get the best or it’s not good enough, and that’s part of their illness,” Andres said.

Andres, Kara Youngblood and Flori Mejeur are the clinicians who are available through the clinic. Getting everyone trained to understand how to deal with eating disorders was a big thing.

“You need all of these people on board and not just on board, but understanding what eating disorders are, how to communicate with these folks, because frankly, they lie,” Andres said. “Anyone with an addiction will lie to keep it. They will sell everything, and everyone out for their addiction. And they’ll smile at you while they’re doing it and it’s awful and sad because they’re so vulnerable.”

Getting the parents their own therapy and help is essential, too.

“They’re on high alert and knowing in the back of their heads, ‘I have to get my kids well or I’m not going to have them,’” Andres said. “That is so isolating and so overwhelming. So we just want to be a safe place for these people to come and get support, but also simplify the number of places they have to go to.”

The Southwestern Michigan Eating Disorder Association (SMEDA) also meets at the Well of GRACE offices. The group is an opportunity for people with eating disorders, health professionals and interested community members to come together to talk and learn.

While Well of GRACE and Southwestern Nutritional Wellness doesn’t treat men, who can also develop eating disorders, it does refer those patients out to a local eating disorder specialist.

“Our name includes the word girls, so we’re not leaving men out, that is just the foundation of who we are,” Andres said. “Resource-wise I’ve written a ton of grants to get a lot of money for a lot of different things, and I just haven’t been able to doubled our money to double our services, but you never know what the future can be.”

A tough road

Andres said they’ve met so many barriers with treating the girls because there’s not a ton of people doing it here in Berrien County, so they often have had to refer to Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo or South Bend.

The new clinic is helping meet that need.

Well of GRACE did not start out as working with eating disorders at all, but just mental health for girls. The organization ran a four-bedroom in-patient facility, along with other groups to help young women.

“Even though we did have a handful of girls from the county that we helped, we noticed people would want to come out of state,” Andres said. “So we were fundraising locally, hoping to support people locally because there is definitely a need for mental health services in Berrien County, and especially residential treatment. We were hoping to fill that gap.”

Eventually the recession hit and nonprofits were not getting the money they had in the past, and by prioritizing their offerings, they found a big need for those with eating disorders.

Andres said Mejeur, one of the clinicians, was the one who really pushed for it, even if they had to do it in bits and pieces at a time.

Still to this day, one of the biggest problems has been funding, though the organization recently got a matching grant from the Upton Foundation.

With those funds, Well of GRACE can provide group therapy for free, but one-on-one therapy for the girls can get expensive.

“The other part is the amount of money these families are spending,” Andres said. “The girls that come to group don’t have to use our one-on-one services at all, but it’s just one more thing we can offer in one space, which we’ve found is super important. We really work to figure out who is the best person for that particular person to be using. How can we do this treatment and do it effectively, so it’s not financially breaking this family? We are just committed to helping these ladies in the community.”

Support

Katie and French say the group therapy sessions are the best part of their weeks.

“It’s cliché, but you figure out you’re not alone,” Katie said. “There are other people who have the same struggle as you. An eating disorder is one of the most loneliest things you can go through and you absolutely have to have support when you’re going through an eating disorder. It’s really critical and I think this group does a good job at that.”

French said people with eating disorders want to isolate themselves.

“You’re trying to hide it from everybody. You don’t even think you’re worthy of being around other people, that they won’t except you and this just fights those lies so much,” she said. “It really reminds you of the truth.”

Andres said during the summer the group does more work out in the community, volunteering at the Therapeutic Equestrian Center and the Humane Society, journaling together on the bluff and being more creative.

“We have them come up with their own success plan during the summer because you don’t want them to get dependent, you want them to be independent with support. It’s a fine line when you are providing therapy,” she said.

Ali Talbott, an intern at Well of GRACE who is studying to be a licensed professional counselor, sits in on the group sessions.

“These girls are just amazing. The way they encourage each other is phenomenal,” she said. “We have one girl who every week lightens up the room, encouraging and uplifting everyone. Even on her darkest days she’s just there to make sure they’re doing good and I think that’s super powerful in a group setting specifically.”

French said there is no pressure on anyone in the group to share, but sharing is often a big part of it. She said not only does she gain insight from others, but she feels she is able to give insight to others.

“You realize you have something to give the world,” French said.

For more information about Southwestern Nutritional Wellness, or to schedule an appointment, call 429-7727 or visit www.swmc.org.

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman