The movie “To the Bone” depicts the life of a young woman struggling with an eating disorder and has sparked much conversation about an illness that affects 1 out of every 10 Americans at some point during their life. Now, an eating disorder app could help the two-thirds of people with eating disorders who never receive treatment due to stigma, lack of health insurance or lack of resources, said Claire Mysko, chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA).
“The app makes it easy for people to get help in the moment they recognize that they need it,” Mysko said. “We want them to connect for help immediately, and this provides them with a simple way to do that.”
The Recovery Record app, which launched in February as a partnership between NEDA and the mobile mental health platform Recovery Record, has already led to 50,000 views of NEDA’s helpline, Mysko said. The app was developed in collaboration with Stanford University and the National Institute of Mental Health, which provided a $1.2 million grant. The app allows users to log meals eaten, answer questions developed by clinicians and connect to professional help. It also offers an eight-week program aimed at recovery.
But the app is not a replacement for in-person treatment, said Jenna Tregarthen, co-founder and chief executive of Recovery Record.
“However, it is often years before people tell someone about their silent battle with eating disorders,” said Tregarthen, whose own sister kept her eating disorder from her family for three years. “With more than 80 percent of Americans now owning smartphones, we have an opportunity to provide immediate, private and evidence-based support. And we hope the app will break down barriers and empower more people to speak up and reach out as a result.”
Rebecca Blitzer, a certified eating disorder dietitian in Greenbelt, Md., said while the app has its benefits, she echoed the importance of in-person counseling.
“My concern is not only that the person struggling with an eating disorder would stop using the app; it is that the person may not realize the importance of having an entire team in place to foster eating disorder recovery,” Blitzer said. “I am also concerned that using the app instead of getting a professional evaluation may make it easy for some people to stay in denial about the psychological and medical severity of the eating disorder.”
Lindsey Hall, who writes about her eating disorder struggles in her blog I Haven’t Shaved in Six Weeks, said the app would be most useful to people on the cusp of coming to grips with their illness.
“The app has so much information, which is a great thing for anyone who is at the beginning of their recovery process,” she said. “It’s exactly like having a counselor sitting right there with you when you need help. This did not exist when I first came to terms with my eating disorder, and I wish it had.”
“But I think the app gets less useful the further down the road you get into your recovery,” Hall added. “Although I’ll forever be struggling with my eating disorder, learning how to live in the moment and not be obsessed with logging in every meal along with your feelings, that’s also part of your recovery.”
Liana Rosenman and Kristina Saffran, co-founders of Project Heal, a nonprofit that raises money to help people with eating disorders afford treatment, say the app can be a lifeline for people who can’t access treatment because of cost and lack of resources due to geographical reasons.
“We get about 500 applications a year for funds, an app like this can be very beneficial to provide help,” Saffran said.
According to NEDA, treatment for an eating disorder can be very expensive, ranging from $50 to $500 per session depending on factors like geographic location and the provider’s expertise. In-patient centers can cost up to $1,000 per day.
Hall said she was lucky to have parents who were willing to pay for her to stay at a resident treatment center but said she saw people come there and leave days later once their insurance coverage ran out.
“That’s not enough time to even come close to fixing the mental aspects that come with an eating disorder,” Hall said.
Many insurance companies won’t cover any treatment, said Dr. Michelle Lupkin, attending psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. She also launched The Eating Disorders Program at Montefiore in December 2016. If insurance companies do cover some treatment, it is almost impossible to find anyone well-trained to treat eating disorders, she added.
“Anorexia nervosa is the most fatal of psychiatric illnesses,” Lupkin said. “So I think the app is a great way to get started. But eating disorders are really serious so we will have to wait and see how effective the app is in helping people reach out for help.”