Your Health

Healthy Teen Project aims to turn around lives of adolescents with eating disorders

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
The executive team of The Healthy Teen Project includes, from left, nurse practioner Katie Bell, medical director Dr. Jennifer Zumarraga and adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Pam Carlton. The teen eating disorder program opened its doors at 919 Fremont Ave. last month.

A new Los Altos-based program is tackling the problem of adolescent eating disorders – one teen at a time.

Opened in mid-June by Pam Carlton, M.D., and a group of her medical colleagues, The Healthy Teen Project at 919 Fremont Ave. aims to address the unique needs of teens ages 13-18 struggling with eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, among other illnesses.

Carlton, a board-certified pediatrician with more than 15 years of experience in the field, said she helped start the program to fill what she sees as a growing need not only in the Bay Area, but nationally as well.

According to the Eating Disorders Coalition (EDC), anorexia nervosa is the third most common chronic illness among American adolescents and has the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses – with 10-20 percent dying from it. The number of children under age 12 admitted to hospitals with eating disorders rose 119 percent in the past decade, the EDC reported.

Carlton noted that The Healthy Teen Project is the only program in the greater Bay Area to offer a partial hospitalization program (PHP) for severe cases, as well as an intensive outpatient program.

“It’s a humungous problem,” said Carlton, who also runs her own private practice – the Carlton Clinic – in Mountain View. “I opened my practice six or seven years ago figuring I’d work a couple of days a week. Within a year, I was working full time. … There’s a tremendous need.”

Katie Bell, the program’s medical and psychiatric nurse practitioner, said teens suffer from eating disorders as a result of trying to meet societal and family pressures to have the “ideal” body.

“They’ve really internalized some of our cultural expectations about bodies and family expectations about bodies,” Bell said. “This has become an avenue for them to manage their emotions and try to be the best they can be. Unfortunately, it becomes a destructive coping tool. … It really leads to some dangerous behaviors.”

Pressures and expectations, Bell added, can also be found in the education system.

“Interestingly enough, some teens are actually being weighed in their schools and there are grades being associated with their weight and their BMI (body mass index),” she said. “I’ve met students who have failed a class because their BMI was outside of the normal range. … What’s happening is there’s this major focus on a number as opposed to how you’re feeling and how you’re eating.”

A multidisciplinary approach

Carlton said she and her colleagues designed the program to meet the needs of their teen patients, pointing specifically to its multidisciplinary approach. The program offers on-site medical staff, a dietitian, a therapist and a psychiatrist to address each patient’s unique requirements. The program also offers an on-site educational consultant for patients who are homeschooled while receiving treatment.

In addition, the program strives to educate the families of teens suffering from eating disorders. Among other efforts, counseling and education are provided to parents and siblings.

“Siblings are usually the ones who are ignored,” Carlton said. “These are kids living in a family with someone who has a chronic illness. They’re affected tremendously. We want to make sure we’re giving them support as well.”

“Everyone has a chance to be heard – the kids and their families – and be effectively treated,” added Dr. Jennifer Zumarraga, the program’s medical director.

A community of support

The program hosts a weekly multifamily dinner to help establish a community of support among patients and their loved ones. Sharon Stafanson, the program’s co-clinical director, said the weekly event offers “in-the-moment support and feedback for families.”

“We’re also able to kind of procure the things that are challenging for them. … We’re really trying to work intensively with them when they’re in our program to give them tools that they can carry forward,” said Stafanson, who added that PHP patients are also fed two snacks and two meals daily while in the program.

And while Carlton and her colleagues hope to heal teens and inspire them to live healthy lives, it’s the patients themselves who inspire them to continue their work.

“I’ve been invited to a couple of patients’ weddings (who) were so entrenched in their disorders that they stepped away from their friends and said they would never have a relationship – that really makes it worth it,” Carlton said.

“I can’t tell you what an honor it is to be able to meet with somebody and their family to just offer some support and guidance, watch something shift over time and see people improve to the extent that they can get back to their lives and be the amazing persons that they are,” Bell added.

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The Healthy Teen Project - Photos By Ellie Van Houtte/Los Altos Town Crier

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