Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

Your Health

Just the beginning: Teen eating-disorder program celebrates anniversary, aims for broader reach

Courtesy of Healthy Teen Project
The Healthy Teen Project includes, from left, staff members Dr. Jennifer Zumarraga; Katie Bell, nurse practitioner; Sharon Stafanson, director of clinical development; and Theresa Chesnut, clinical director.

The people behind a Los Altos-based program to help teens recover from eating disorders hope to make an even greater impact in its second year of operation.

The Healthy Teen Project (HTP), celebrating its first anniversary this month, held an open house in late May to spread awareness of its services for local teens ages 13-18 struggling with eating disorders. HTP is located at 919 Fremont Ave.

Co-founders Katie Bell, a medical and psychiatric nurse practitioner, and Dr. Jennifer Zumarraga, a board-certified psychiatrist, noted that the program’s first year opened their eyes to the growing need for additional counseling and other services for local teens with eating disorders.

“We’re kind of reading the writing on the wall, if you will, that there’s absolutely a need for this in the community,” said Bell, whose program includes partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programming when indicated. “There’s no other service (in the area) that is being provided.”

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, at least half a million teens in the United States struggle with eating disorders. In all, approximately 14 million Americans suffer from some type of eating disorder, according to the Eating Disorders Coalition for Research, Policy & Action.

A community ‘touch point’

Sharon Stafanson, HTP’s director of clinical development, said the problem might be more severe locally – in part because of under-reporting, misdiagnosis or lack of awareness. She noted that pressures for academic success – coupled with other factors such as bullying – could create a local environment without “a lot of exits.”

“That’s something we are seeing with the clients we’re having,” Stafanson said. “They’re coming in and they’re all generally doing very well in school, (but) they’re concerned about falling back and they’re anxious. They’re anxious kids who have always done really well and they’re just not able to keep it together. Their eating disorder is a way for them to kind of try to cope.”

Clinical Director Theresa Chesnut, who joined the program in November, added that she has observed that local teens suffer from eating disorders at an earlier age than those she worked with in the Midwest.

“The clients I would get there would talk about sophomore year (or) junior year as being the highest pressure for them,” she said. “That’s typically the time their eating disorders would take off. … What I’m finding with these (local) kids is that it’s not sophomore or junior year – it’s seventh and eighth grades. The pressure is as intense to get into the right high school as it is for kids in other parts of the country to get into college.”

Chesnut and others at HTP hope to help these teens by spreading awareness of eating disorders and telling potential victims about the program. HTP representatives have reached out to local schools and offered in-service trainings so that educators are better prepared to help students with eating disorders. The plan is to have HTP serve as a local hub – a go-to resource – for anyone in the community seeking advice or a referral.

“I think a lot of people just don’t know what to do,” Zumarraga said. “That’s where we want them to call us. We can refer them to (whomever) they need to see. That’s kind of how we see ourselves, as being a touch point in the community.”

Bell said HTP plans to shift the scheduling of two programs – partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient – in an effort to double its capacity and serve 24 patients.

Coupled with an expanded staff that includes a new family therapist, HTP will be able to offer more customized care, according to Chesnut.

“Being able to separate it out this way will give us the ability to tailor to each population a bit differently and individualize that care,” said Chesnut, who in May launched an aftercare support group for former clients.

The program, she added, will include yoga, music and art therapy components so that teens under her care can find other avenues to express themselves as part of their recovery process.

For more information, visit healthyteenproject.com.

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