Act could impact locals suffering from eating disorders

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Jake Magee
Thursday, December 15, 2016

MILTON—The Dorns know the effects of mental illness too well.

A year ago, Michael and Alita Dorn's 17-year-old daughter Maria took her own life after a battle with anorexia nervosa.

But the family is rejoicing recent legislation that could lead to more awareness, education and treatment for eating disorder sufferers.

On Tuesday, President Obama signed into law the 21st Century Cures Act, which will provide more funding for programs that recognize and treat mental health issues.

Since Maria's death, the Dorns got involved with Project Mar;a, a Rock County organization founded by Maria's teachers to help spread awareness and seek more treatment opportunities for eating disorders.

The semicolon in "Project Mar;a" had significance for Maria. In writing, a semicolon is used to separate two complete but related sentences instead of ending the first with a period. The semicolon has become recognized a symbol for those who have struggled with suicidal thoughts and have chosen not to end their lives.

The act's passing is a “booster shot” for Project Mar;a and any other foundations trying to help those suffering from eating disorders, Alita said.

“It's important to me because it would've been important to Maria,” Alita said of the legislation.

Negative stigmas surrounding those who suffer from mental illnesses makes them “underdogs” Maria lived to support, she said.

“She fought for herself, but even in treatment she was the biggest advocate to encourage other peers to participate in treatment as well,” Alita said.

During Maria's illness, the Dorns sometimes traveled twice a week 90 minutes one way to get Maria the treatment she needed. The results won't happen overnight, but the newly passed act could pave the way for more localized treatment, Alita said.

At the very least, the legislation will further teach health care professionals about eating disorders and other mental illnesses, she said.

The act could also change how insurance companies handle mental illnesses. Using loopholes, insurance companies sometimes avoid paying for certain mental health treatments. Companies can do this by reimbursing specialists who treat mental health less, which draws fewer of them to an area, Alita said.

The Dorns' insurance company told them it wouldn't cover Maria's residential care. The Dorns wrote a letter to justify why the company should pay. When it still refused, the Dorns had to appeal three times before the company finally agreed to pay, Alita said.

“That involved, of course, letter writing, getting articles, getting professionals to write letters to the insurance company, so it was a lot of effort on our part,” she said. “Not every parent maybe has the time to do that or the abilities to coordinate all those things for their child they're trying to save.”

The legislation could do away with such headaches, or at least lessen them, Alita said.

The act also could lead to education for healthcare professionals to more quickly recognize and identify eating disorders so treatment can begin sooner, Alita said.

“Right now, we're actively educating where the doors are open, but I think that because of this legislation, we can use the priority that the government has set on early education as a motivator for maybe some people to open their doors that aren't opening their doors yet to education,” she said. “You hope that through the law there's going to be better training so you catch someone sooner.”

While it may take some time before the effects of the act are apparent, Project Mar;a is making progress at a local level.

Michael spoke in October at a National Eating Disorders Association walk in Madison. From that connection, the Dorns got the opportunity to speak at Madison College to a graduating class going into recreation professions, such as running health clubs or overseeing parks. At Milton High School, Michael talked to a class of freshman about the Dorns' experience with eating disorders.

And soon, Alita will talk to graduating family practice residents at Mercy Clinic South. Mercy is exploring training to continue medical education related to eating disorders, Alita said.

Project Mar;a held an art jam this summer inspiring attendees with a message of hope and raising money for the National Eating Disorders Association. The next art jam, slated for 6 p.m. June 17 at Milton High School, will feature art of all sorts promoting a message of strength.

An artist who creates pieces through welding will give a live demonstration and talk about how heated metal that cools and becomes stronger is a lot like the trials people go through that make them stronger.

“I think that's going to be a nice overlap of the art and the story,” Alita said.

A dancer who once struggled with an eating disorder will also appear at the art jam and hopefully influence and educate the local dance community, Alita said.

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