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Therapy key to reversing eating disorders

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychological disease, yet they are completely reversible, according to Peggy Claude-Pierre, founder of a revolutionary approach to the treatment of the disorders.

Eight million people suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other types of eating disorders, especially young college students and other adolescents.

"Eating disorders are the symptoms, not the disease. Anorexia is not a fashion thing, nor is it caused by dysfunctional family, low self-esteem or other societal expectations," Claude- Pierre said. "Anorexia springs from ... the culmination of negative subjectivity turned against oneself ... The sufferers assume that they are not worthy of life and deny themselves food in order to fulfill that belief."

While anorexia and bulimia are prevalent among all ages, the highest risk group are adolescents, including young college students just out of high school. Adolescence is a very insecure time even in a stable person's life, Claude-Pierre said. It is natural for those who have not yet developed an identity to be more prone to eating disorders, she said.

"Hypersensitive people in a society that is rushed and un-parented have a high incidence of anxiety that shows up in many forms today," she added.

Claude-Pierre was the keynote speaker at a one-day conference on Body Image and Health sponsored by the School of Allied Health, the Health Center and CIGNA HealthCare on October 16. The conference, the seventh in a series on women's health founded by Cynthia Adams, associate dean of allied health, drew nearly 700 people from all over the state. It also featured panel discussions on self-esteem and body image and preventive care for health after 40.

Jeffrey Anderson, director of sports medicine, said the development of self-esteem in young women that is not tied to their appearance is the key to prevention of this disorder. "Anorexia and bulimia are extremely secretive eating disorders, making them hard to detect, diagnose and treat."

Anderson is also chair of the female athletic performance committee at UConn that works closely with the eating disorders team at Student Health Services. "The eating disorders team tends to be following a couple of dozen or so women with eating disorders at any one time," he said.

Claude-Pierre, author of the book "The Secret Language of Eating Disorders," became an expert on the subject after her two teen-age daughters developed eating disorders. She chose to become a therapist, refusing to watch her children die. After her success with her daughters, she started to treat critically ill children who were referred to her by other professionals and eventually founded the Montreux Clinic, in Victoria, Canada in 1993. Her positive approach and high success rate of over 90 percent in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia earned her worldwide acclaim and recognition, including features on 20/20 and the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Usha R. Palaniswamy