Terry Schiavo Could Save Millions of Young Women’s Lives

Thom Hartmann | CommonDreams

Years ago, a popular and wry sign to hang in one’s office or on one’s cubicle said, “A Clean Desk Is The Sign Of A Sick Mind.” There is a very faint grain of truth to that, which highlights an opportunity for the media to use Terry Schaivo’s tragic situation to actually save lives of girls and women (and a few men) in non-vegetative states.

For years it was believed that anorexia (not eating) and bulimia (eating and vomiting or “purging”) were signs of an exogenous “induced” (life-experience-caused) mental illness. The most common theories constituted a hodge-podge of ideas ranging from “bad parenting” and child abuse to the more Freudian “poor toilet training,” and psychotherapy to treat anorexia and/or bulimia centered around trying to remember, bring out, relive, and/or relieve these “causes.” These therapies rarely worked, and often made situations worse by focusing on the loci of the obsession.

Then along came the SSRI drugs – selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – antidepressants like Prozac. In the course of researching these drugs, it was accidentally discovered that they were often successful in treating people with obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), and that people with anorexia and, particularly, bulimia responded well to them. (The downside of the SSRI’s is that they cause lack of affect and increase the chances of suicide, as recent studies and the stories of so many school shooters on SSRI drugs show.)

This revolutionized psychiatry’s perspective of these eating disorders, causing many in the field to conclude that they were really subsets of OCD, where the obsession had settled on body weight or image, instead of the traditional OCD flags such as hand-washing, magical thinking, or evening-up (counting syllables in road signs, touching with one had what had been touched with the other, etc.).

It also implied that OCD was genetically mediated, had to do with variations in the levels of specific neurotransmitters (especially serotonin), had little to do with upbringing (other than experiences determining where the focus of the OCD would settle), and has been in the human genome for millions of years.

This last observation, like the dopamine-mediated conditions of ADHD producing Edisons and Franklins, has led some in the field to the conclusion that a certain level of OCD is useful and necessary for a functioning society, and that there’s a touch – more or less – in all of us. It’s what causes some people to keep their homes or garages super-neat, be fastidious about their appearance, or maintain that “clean desk” of office lore. In small doses, sub-clinical OCD works to keep us organized.

But slightly-above-average OCD levels also create a vulnerability in individuals who carry the genes for it, which the marketing industry recognized three decades ago when it began applying psychographic analysis to advertising strategies, and now aggressively exploits. Is your hair shiny enough? Are your teeth white enough? Is your body thin enough?

This genetic predisposition to sub-clinical (and thus “normal”) OCD appears to make its carriers particularly vulnerable to advertising. As the BBC reported in 1999, just 38 months after the introduction of television to parts of Fiji, purging – bulimia – among teenage girls had gone from being virtually unknown to being something practiced by fully 15 percent of all young women. They “got it” that being “desirable” meant being thin, but didn’t have the money to buy the weight aids advertised. The cheaper solution was just to put a finger down the throat and upchuck the most recent meal.

Bulimia can lead to a variety of problems. Gastro-intestinal reflux disorder (GIRD) is often the result of stomach acids burning the esophagus on their way up during purging, leading in some cases to a lifetime dependence on antacids or prescription stomach acid inhibitors. Teeth are eaten away by stomach acids. Nutritional deficiencies – particularly mineral deficiencies – abound. And in extreme cases the imbalance of minerals produced by this (particularly the lack of potassium) can cause heart attacks, such as the one that stopped the flow of blood and oxygen to Terry Schaivo’s brain, leaving her in a persistent vegetative state.

As The National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Eating Disorders notes: “Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses; a woman with anorexia is 12 times more likely to die than a woman her age without an eating disorder. Individuals with bulimia risk severe electrolyte imbalances, kidney disturbances, heart problems and other serious, life threatening medical complications.”

Terry Schiavo gives us, at the end of her life, a gift – a chance to use her case to share with other young girls and women the outcome of anorexia and bulimia. In a larger and more important context, it provides us with an opportunity to open a culture-wide discussion of the psychological and – ultimately – physical dangers of exposure to personal-image-based advertising and marketing, as well as the dangers of simply “treating” this largely advertising-driven problem with SSRI drugs, which can also devastate young people’s lives.

Thom Hartmann (thom at thomhartmann.com) is a Project Censored Award-winning best-selling author, former psychotherapist and founder in 1978 of a community for abused and severely emotionally disturbed children (The New England Salem Children’s Village), former CEO of an advertising agency, and host of a nationally syndicated daily progressive talk show. www.thomhartmann.com His most recent book on evolutionary psychiatry is “The Edison Gene.”

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