KITTY WESTIN (LOOKING AT PHOTOS OF HER DAUGHTER): The day Anna was born, November 27, 1978….I believe Anna was genetically predisposed to develop, you know, if not an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, there’s a lot of that on both sides of the family. She lived in this toxic culture of thinness. She had the personality characteristics. I think it was kind of that perfect storm.
NARRATION: A perfect storm that Anna Westin’s mother Kitty says began when at the age of 15 she announced that she needed to go on a diet.
KITTY WESTIN: I remember thinking, really? Anna was an average sized young woman, very athletic. Played tennis and ran and did just very active. She did not need to lose weight.
NARRATION: Less than a year later, Anna’s struggles with depression, anxiety and food increased and she was diagnosed with Anorexia Nervosa.
KITTY WESTIN: Anna was fighting for her life and she was, you know, so ill and well meaning people would come up to me and say, well, just make her eat. Okay, I’m her mother, do you think I – that didn’t cross my mind? And if that was the solution, I wouldn’t have done that? I mean, come on. It, she couldn’t just eat, I wish she could have.
NARRATION: As her illness progressed, so did Anna’s fear. She wrote in her journals: “I am scared to death about what’s going on right now…I can’t even control my own mind…”
KITTY WESTIN: Anna fought her eating disorder so hard. And reading her journals, how much she hated that eating disorder, and how desperate she wanted to be free of it. I mean, desperately wanted it out of her life, because she knew it was destroying her.
NARRATION: In February of 2000, at the age of 21, Anna Westin took her own life.
KITTY WESTIN: It truly felt like a-a bomb had exploded in our family. We did not have any indication that she had been considering suicide. But I think the pain was so deep, it’s almost unspeakable.
NARRATION: The fact is that the suicide rate for people suffering from anorexia is higher than almost all other mental illness.
EVELYN ATTIA (DIRECTOR, CENTER FOR EATING DISORDERS OF NEW YORK PRESBYTERIAN HOSPITAL): That connection is an important one. It’s a frightening one. There’s been increasing understanding that this is a serious psychiatric illness. This is a brain-based disorder.
NARRATION: While many Americans have gone on diets, experts say that only a small percentage actually develop severe eating disorders. So researchers are focusing on brain wiring and genetics to try and find out why.
EVELYN ATTIA: Only recently is the field taking off with using technologies that take a look at the brain, take a look at the functioning brain, understand in more complex ways what is different in individuals with these disorders.
NARRATION: Since her daughter’s death, Kitty Westin has founded a residential center to treat anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders and waged a public campaign to raise awareness about them.
KITTY WESTIN: What we know about eating disorders is there is so much stigma and shame, which is true for any mental disorders.
NARRATION: Angered by the limited insurance coverage in her daughter’s case, she has successfully fought for insurance companies to cover long term treatment through the Affordable Care Act and other federal legislation.
KITTY WESTIN: Honestly, to this day, if somebody said, you can have Anna back for five minutes and you can hold her, and everything you’ve done will be undone, I would do that. I long to hold her and smell her hair and to hold her in my arms. So, if I tell her story and-and one person listens and gets it, and does something different and changes or decides to recover from their eating disorder, or works to change public policy, then that makes it so Anna didn’t die in vain. Something good can come of it.
TEXT ON SCREEN: Every day, at least 4 people will die from an eating disorder.