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Conference aims to reduce shame and increase education surrounding eating disorders

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It's been 10 years since Elaine Stevenson lost her 24-year-old daughter, Alyssa, to anorexia. The River Heights mother and advocate wants to make sure other families don't go through the pain and heartache hers did.

So over the past few weeks, Stevenson has been trying to get the word out about Setting the Table for Recovery -- the first ever eating-disorders conference hosted by the Canadian Mental Health Association, Manitoba division, taking place Friday at the Viscount Gort.

Her goal? To uncover a set of illnesses shrouded in darkness. She wants health-care providers, teachers, families and patients to attend so they can know how to recognize and deal with an eating disorder.

"What's sort of sad about this illness is that it's cloaked in shame and secrecy and embarrassment," says Stevenson, who helped organize the conference.

Tracey Gold, an actress from the popular 1980s sitcom Growing Pains, will talk about her own struggles with anorexia in her Friday morning keynote address. She'll also be on hand for a social evening the night before, where she will mingle with guests and answer their questions.

Doctors, therapists and dentists will also present practical information about how to prevent eating disorders and cope with them.

"Oral health care is extremely important for people suffering from eating disorders. Unfortunately, our daughter ended up losing all her teeth. The acid of someone who is purging (engaging in self-induced vomiting) can really, really destroy the teeth and do it quickly," says Stevenson, who speaks matter-of-factly about the ins and outs of living with eating disorders.

There will also be a panel to talk about body-image issues among boys and young men, as well as the types of therapies available, including art therapy.

According to Health Canada, three per cent of women will suffer an eating disorder in their lifetime. Eating disorders affect boys and men as well.

Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, says Stevenson, who notes that about 10 per cent of people with anorexia die within 10 years of the onset of the disease.

Shortly after Alyssa was diagnosed with anorexia at age 12, Stevenson became a public advocate for her daughter, lobbying for better diagnosis and treatment.

"You're going to come out of (the conference) with practical information you can use whether you're a parent or a mental-health provider," says Stevenson. "(We're) just trying to give families those kinds of tools to support them and support their loved ones. I never had that kind of stuff."

Stevenson, who has two other children, says Alyssa was a seemingly healthy child who loved playing fast pitch.

She and her husband didn't realize she wasn't eating adequately until one of her classmates reported that Alyssa would often give away her school lunches.

Shortly after, her pediatrician told Stevenson that Alyssa's weight was in normal range.

By the time she was diagnosed, Alyssa was "deep" into her illness. She spent years in and out of the hospital until a heart attack killed her.

Stevenson says she had a hard time finding resources to help her daughter and her family cope.

"Alyssa, unfortunately, was ill in the 1990s. The type of services out there were pretty minimal," says Stevenson.

She hopes more primary-care physicians will learn that a patient may not lose weight at the start of an eating disorder.

Dr. Eric Vickar, a psychiatrist who heads the child and adolescent eating disorders program at Health Sciences Centre, says the numbers of children he treats has risen in the 10 years he's run the program.

He has treated children as young as eight.

He guesses that societal attitudes about body size and media images are partially to blame, and he's concerned about the trend.

"The parents are often extremely worried -- and rightfully so -- about their children. And I feel that distress with them," says Vickar, noting that eating disorders can have serious short- and long-term consequences.

At the same time, Vickar says he delights in the success stories he sees -- patients who beat their eating disorders.

Erin Dowling, who runs the Canadian Mental Health Association's eating-disorder self-help program is one such patient.

She considers herself free of the eating disorder that plagued her since the age of 10 -- although she admits that her recovery is a "journey" she has to work at.

The 29-year-old, who grew up in Winkler, says the province's eating-disorder services have improved since she was a child but wait times to get into such programs are too long. As well, she says there needs to be more rural outreach programs.

The cost to attend the Friday conference is $250; it runs from 8:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Thursday reception, featuring actresses Tracey Gold and Jenni Schaefer, is $35. The event runs from 7 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. To register, contact conference chairwoman Erin Dowling at 953-2358 or email her at


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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 5, 2012 C1

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