Film sparks talk about eating disorders

March 7, 2013

Jennifer Smith talks about eating disorders at HCC. Jennifer Smith talks to nursing student Moria Barrows.

Melissa Avrin was a vibrant, outgoing, happy, optimistic young girl before she got caught in the grip of an eating disorder.

"Melissa had a full life," said Jennifer Smith, LICSW, the former director of outpatient programs for the Walden Behavioral Health Clinics in Northampton, Mass., and South Windsor, Conn. "As the disorder progressed, her life became smaller and smaller until the disease was all she had left -- her entire identity was as someone with an eating disorder."

Melissa died on May 6, 2009, from a heart attack. She was 19 years old.

The documentary "Someday Melissa" chronicles her tragic decline. HCC Counseling Services screened the film in the Leslie Phillips Theater at Holyoke Community College Wednesday to raise awareness about eating disorders, which, according to experts, are more common and more dangerous than many people think.

The screening followed National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (Feb. 24-March 2), whose theme this year was "Everybody Knows Somebody."

"This is a significant health issue but it is surrounded by secrecy and shame," said Mary Jane  O'Connor, HCC senior academic counselor.  

O'Connor said HCC Counseling Services decided to get involved after she received a message on a professional list-serv citing an alarming statistic - that someone with an eating disorder is 18 times more likely to die an early death.

Smith, who answered questions after the film, said eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality of any mental illness.

"This is a devastating illness and the earlier it is treated and the more thoroughly it's treated the better the chance of successful treatment," she said.  

The film chronicles Melissa's life and struggle through videos and interviews with family members and friends.  Although Melissa was in therapy and frequently hospitalized for treatment, her disease progressed. Her decline, Smith said, is typical for someone struggling with bulimia.

Insurance companies would pay only until her physical condition had stabilized. Her weight was always within the "normal" range.

"Eating disorders require really intensive treatment," Smith said. "Lab levels can be stabilized, but they're behavior isn't any better."

Smith said there is often a genetic disposition for eating disorders. At one point in the film, Melissa's mother, Judy Avrin, confesses that she had suffered from bulimia for 25 years.

Melissa's behavior reached the point where her family couldn't keep any food in the house. She would eat anything she could find and then make herself throw up. Once she was found eating lettuce and mayonnaise because that's all there was in the refrigerator.  

"Families who deal with this day in and day out get completely fried," Smith said.

"How can you approach someone like that?"  someone in the audience asked after the film.

"Whatever you do," Smith said, "don't ignore it. Encourage them to get help and support."

The film was inspired by a poem Melissa wrote that describes her hopes in spite of her own awareness of her disease.

Someday ...
I'll eat breakfast
I'll keep a job for more than 3 weeks
I'll have a boyfriend for more than 10 days
I'll love someone
I'll travel wherever I want
I'll make my family proud
I'll make a movie that changes lives

Smith said it was likely a potassium deficiency that lead to Melissa's fatal heart attack, which came the day after she learned she'd been accepted to Emerson College.

After Melissa's death, her mother founded "Someday Melissa," a nonprofit organization that promotes awareness and treatment of eating disorders.

Photos: (Left) Clinician Jennifer Smith answers questions after the film. (Right) Smith talks to HCC nursing student Moria Barrows of Granby.


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