Anorexia rooted in mental health discussion

Anna Huntsman

At 19 years old, junior zoology major Natalie Selavka is a passionate animal lover.

A Connecticut native, she dreams of being a zookeeper and will spend her summer interning at a big cat sanctuary in Texas. She is an Honors College student with an infectious laugh.

Three years ago, however, things were not so bright for Selavka.

Eating disorders and mental health from on Vimeo.

In high school, Selavka began dieting with her mom. A self-described “health nut,” Selavka enjoyed working out and tracking her progress.

“I thought I was healthy just because I had abs,” she said.

At the same time, Selavka was heavily involved with high school activities. She participated in the drama club and was captain of the cheerleading squad. She started noticing, though, that it was harder for her to do the physical activities these clubs required.

“I had just no energy towards the end,” she said. “I’d faint just walking up stairs or trying to stand up.”

Still, Selavka kept trying to lose weight. With her busy schedule, it soon became easy for Selavka to lie to her parents about eating. She said seeing how long she could go without eating became a “sick game” for her.

“I think my record was five days without eating,” she added.

Eventually, at 16 years old, Selavka was 94 pounds. She often had no energy and was so cold that she would take naps in front of a heater. Her body was covered in thin hairs, called lanugo.

Physically, all the signs for an eating disorder were there. Mentally, she refused to believe them.

“I didn’t think anything was wrong with me,” she said. “I never even considered the possibility that I’d had an eating disorder.”

Instead, her thoughts were focused on her body and her fear of gaining weight.

“I was just so obsessed with food and trying to find ways to avoid it,” she recalled.

Finally, Selavka’s mom took action. She took her daughter to the doctor, who diagnosed her with anorexia nervosa.

Selavka was not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder each year. Statistics from NIMH also show that 10 percent of patients with anorexia die — either from suicide, heart problems or other physiological issues — making it the most deadly mental illness.

Yet, Selavka said she feels many people do not consider anorexia and other eating disorders to be mental health issues.

“It’s a very underrated mental disorder,” she said. “People don’t always associate [it] with the ‘bigger’ ones, such as anxiety and depression.”

While the physical symptoms of an eating disorder are most recognizable, the root of the illness is psychological. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders describes symptoms in detail on their website. A key aspect of the disorder is the patient’s intense fear of gaining weight and inability to recognize the seriousness of their current weight.

“I thought I was enormous,” Selavka said. “I just saw fat all over my body, when that wasn’t truly what I looked like. That’s just how I viewed myself. That’s all I could focus on.”

Selavka spent 61 days in treatment at the Center for Discovery in Southport, Connecticut. There, she and others learned to accept what is on the outside of their bodies by focusing on the inside.

“Every day, we had to say three things we liked about ourselves — internal qualities,” she recalled.

In treatment, patients were also required to eat three meals and three snacks each day to develop sufficient eating habits and were closely monitored by staff. Though she said the strict treatment was difficult, it helped change Selavka’s mindset — the key to recovery for her and many others who struggle with eating disorders.

“I was just sobbing….saying ‘I can’t do this anymore. I just want to get better. I don’t want an eating disorder anymore,” she said. “That was my epiphany moment.”

Although there are several different types of treatments, such as outpatient, residential and family therapy, most people who suffer from an eating disorder never fully recover. Selavka said she still struggles with occasional body image issues and negative thoughts but has learned to catch herself before the thoughts become severe.

“I have to be like ‘why am I concerned about that’?” she said. “That doesn’t matter to me.”

Selavka said she encourages anyone currently dealing with mental illness to reach out and get the help they need. She manages to see the positive in her pain.

“Even though it was so difficult, I wouldn’t trade it,” she added.

If you or a loved one are struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Helpline at (800) 931-2237 or visit

Editor’s note: This story is part of a student media project entitled “The Silent Struggle.” See the whole project here