How the second-deadliest mental illness almost killed her daughter

Posted at 5:00 AM, Apr 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-07 20:25:12-04

Melissa Cahill knew something was wrong 10 years ago when she had to take her 14-year-old daughter to the pediatrician for a sports physical. She just didn't know what.

Her daughter's height was growing, but her weight was going down. It was June that year when Cahill found out her daughter was one of 30 million Americans who will live with an eating disorder in their lifetime, many while they are still children.

By that September, Cahill's daughter was hospitalized for a low heart rate.

“It breaks your heart for your child,” Cahill said. “It’s very frustrating. It makes you really sad because you can see how they’re hurting themselves, but because of the illness they can’t see it. They’re really destroying themselves essentially."

Cahill found that there was no clear way to treat a child with an eating disorder in Kentucky.

“At the time, they’re saying your daughter needs residential care, your daughter needs higher care," Cahill said. "And we looked at the doctors and said what does that mean? Where do we go?”

There were no residential treatment programs in Kentucky for people under 18. So her daughter had to be sent out of state. Plus, there were other barriers. Many insurance companies don’t cover eating disorder treatment, and if they do, coverage often ends before the patient has actually recovered. There can be long waiting lists to get into facilities, some places aren’t strictly designed to address eating disorders, and others limit access by age and gender.

Eating disorders are the second-deadliest mental illness, with opioid-related deaths leading nationwide. And the most common cause of death related to an eating disorder is suicide.

It’s why the passage of Kentucky Senate Bill 82 in March is such a big deal for Cahill.

“It was almost surreal,” Cahill said.

The bill, which establishes the Kentucky Eating Disorder Council, was sponsored by Sen. Julie Adams and it passed both the House and Senate unanimously. Gov. Andy Beshear signed it into law on March 27.

“I think, particularly in Kentucky, it is a great, great need,” said Dr. Ashley Solomon.

Solomon is the Director of Clinical Outreach for the Eating Recovery Center in Cincinnati. As a licensed clinical psychologist, she also runs a private practice and helps patients in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky area. She said Kentucky is under-resourced when it comes to eating disorder care.

“There simply aren’t enough treatment options available. There really is a lack of individual providers that specialize in eating disorder care,” she said. “And for those who need more intensive treatment, especially in certain regions, there is a real lack of treatment centers.”

She’s hopeful that the new council will help change that.

According to the bill, the council will be tasked with building educational and awareness programs, identifying research programs and projects, improving diagnosis and treatment services and much more.

“In other states, where they have developed an eating disorder council, the councils have been very effective at proposing initiatives, doing research to really understand within that state what’s going on and how to meet the needs effectively,” Solomon said.

Cahill just wants viable options for treatment in Kentucky.

“So my goal would be that we have several regional facilities that know how to treat and know how to handle higher level eating disorder cases,” she said. She also hopes the council is fully appointed by summer.

It will be made up of a variety of people from all sectors, including someone from Health and Family Services, Medicaid Services, the Department of Public Health, the Department of Insurance, a psychiatrist who works with people who have eating disorders, people who have recovered from eating disorders and more.

A funding stream will also need to be established, which Cahill admits will take some time.

In the meantime, she hopes the passage of Senate Bill 82 acts as a glimmer of hope for those who are struggling with, or recovered from, an eating disorder.

“You get through one day at a time, and every little success you build on that. It is possible,” she said.