Cheri Levinson
Cheri Levinson

When the Kentucky Eating Disorders Council first convenes this summer, Cheri Levinson can be proud of her role in establishing it, the nation’s second.

The UofL clinical psychologist worked for the successful passage last month of Senate Bill 82, which Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed into law March 27.

Levinson testified before a joint legislative committee and helped others advocating for the council, believing it will help ensure attention and services are brought to Kentuckians often hidden in their suffering from what she described as “a silent epidemic.”

“It was pretty amazing,” Levinson said. “The senators and representatives were very supportive. You could tell the people there cared.”

All sorts of people – young, old and from all walks of life — have some sort of eating disorder, which can be anorexia, bulimia, binge eating or other feeding disorders. And while the public might consider those physical problems, the truth is they often are rooted in emotional issues and anxiety – and are preventable and treatable.

Levinson, assistant professor of psychological and brain sciences, also is founding director of UofL’s Eating Anxiety Treatment (EAT) Laboratory. There she and graduate students help serve clients, also through UofL’s Noble Kelley Psychological Services Center, and they research better, novel ways to support them,

For example, the laboratory group is piloting a tailored approach that uses a smartphone app to deliver a personalized treatment. There also are support groups and other treatment studies, all currently offered online, particularly during the coronavirus-related adjustments.

Levinson also is clinical director for a private practice, Louisville Center for Eating Disorders, which will have a role in the new council’s initial makeup. The center will suggest as members some names of people who have eating disorders or those with experience working with them to ensure they have a voice in the council’s work.

The bill attaches the council to the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, which will have representatives on it. Others on the 19-member body include representatives from insurance, health care, social work, education and dietetics. “Getting all of those important people together in the room – just to get all those people together is a big deal,” she said.

The council would help oversee eating disorder awareness, education and prevention programs; identify strategies to improve access to diagnostic and treatment programs; help the cabinet identify research projects; collaborate on data-based research; recommend legislative or regulatory changes; and apply for grant funding.

“The ultimate charge of the bill is to create more and better treatment,” Levinson said. Beyond UofL and her private clinic, Levinson said Kentucky doesn’t offer much in the way of comprehensive treatment for eating disorders, and many people with disorders who require more intensive treatment have to travel as far as to Missouri, the first state to offer an eating disorders council.

However, Levinson believes that higher awareness and better training in communities might help people screen for and recognize the early warning signs so they can intervene before the disorders develop.

“Anxiety is ‘the’ predisposing factor for an eating disorder,” she said.

Levinson cited studies that indicated 50% of students in middle school say they are on a diet to lose weight and that 50% of middle and high school students report some type of eating disorder behavior.

“Eating disorders are treatable,” she said. With early prevention, proper care and family support, people can conquer the illnesses that otherwise could lead to an array of other health problems.

“You can recover, and people don’t have to live with this for the rest of their lives,” she said.