By Gabe Licht
MONTROSE, MN Liz Gerads, of Montrose, struggled with an eating disorder for 14 years.
She’s not afraid to talk about it.
Silence only perpetuates the stigma, she believes.
“I think a lot of people stigmatize eating disorders as something we do to ourselves, that you decide not to eat someday and it’s your fault,” Gerads said. “But, it’s the deadliest of all mental illnesses.”
Gerads is working to stop that stigma.
She recently attended the Eating Disorders Coalition National Fall Lobby Day in Washington, DC, which she has been attending annually since 2008.
She also participated in the inaugural Moms and Others March.
“It began with a Facebook group started by a mother who lost her daughter to an eating disorder and had a vision of having mothers come together on Capitol Hill and give support to each other,” Gerads said of the march.
While volunteering at the poster table at Lobby Day, one moment in particular impacted her. A woman unrolled a picture of a girl who had been in treatment with Gerads. On the same day a doctor from the treatment facility and a doctor from the insurance company decided Gerads could stay, the other girl went through the same process and learned that her insurance company was not going to pay for more treatment so she was forced to leave.
“The photo had her birthday and the day of her death,” Gerads said. “I got the proper treatment and she didn’t. She died about two months after she left the facility. I knew her and I had no idea she was dead.
“Here I was, already super emotional from being there that day and celebrating my recovery, then I had this huge weight come down on me learning she had been taken away,” Gerads continued. “I went back to the circumstances of knowing why she was taken away. It lit a fire under me to advocate for it the next day. It reminded me why I fight.”
Unfortunately, the end of that acquaintance’s story is not rare. Estimates suggest that eating disorders take a life every 23 minutes.
“By the time we get back to Capitol Hill in April (for next year’s Lobby Day), potentially 4,000 could have died from an eating disorder,” Gerads said.
To try to combat those numbers, Gerads is pushing for the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders, or FREED Act.
If made into a law, the FREED Act would provide research for eating disorders and education for doctors, teachers and coaches. It would also require insurance companies to cover residential treatment for eating disorders.
“This bill is really important to me because it can save lives,” Gerads said.
As she fights for that legislation, she is following in the footsteps of Kathleen MacDonald and Kitty Westin, who advocated for her when her insurance company wanted to cut her off after three days in a treatment facility.
Westin is more than familiar with taking on insurance companies over eating disorders. After her daughter, Anna, died, she and her husband, Mark, teamed up with the Minnesota attorney general to charge Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota with denying adequate care to Anna and other patients like her. The case was settled out of court, with Blue Cross agreeing to cover mental heath care the same as medical services, to reimburse the state $8.2 million for treatment costs and pay the Westins $1 million, which they used to found a residential treatment center in the Minneapolis area for patients with eating disorders.
Her own daughters also inspire her to make a difference.
“In looking at them, I think of everything I went through for 14 years and I don’t want them to go through that,” Gerads said. “The stats are against me when it comes to them developing an eating disorder or poor body image. . . . Not only do I advocate because of my own recovery, but also so they grow up in a better society than I grew up in.”
Gerads believes anyone can make a difference.
“It doesn’t take a big politician or fancy suit to make a difference,” she said. “If you find something that lights your fire like eating disorders does for me, then you can get somebody to listen.”
Individuals who are struggling with an eating disorder, or those who know someone who is, may contact Gerads at firstname.lastname@example.org or 612-501-5837.
“I’m a National Eating Disorders Association navigator, so I can point them in the right direction for resources in the area,” Gerads said.
She stressed that everything shared with her is confidential, but those who are not comfortable with talking to a local person may call the NEDA 24-hour help line at 1-800-931-2237 or visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information.