The Mendibles family first recognized that there was something amiss with Bella’s mental health in middle school, when an obsession with exercise caused her to lose significant weight. Errin decided to take Bella to an inpatient treatment center in Arizona, which was described to her as a place that “has a horrible reputation, but it’s the only one that’s here.”
Upon leaving this center, Errin noted that Bella’s condition became worse. Tucson itself does not have any eating disorder facilities. This means that Tucsonans are often forced to look for costly out-of-state treatment options, and this doesn’t even begin to factor in cost of travel and accommodations. In searching for treatment for Bella, Errin was forced to cross state lines multiple times, from Colorado to California, relying either on her own money or donations from the community, all just to receive basic healthcare for her daughter.
After staying at a variety of centers across the country, Bella found that a program in San Diego worked best for her. Her success in San Diego meant that she was able to return to Arizona and begin to rebuild her life with her family. Since then, Errin says that Bella is vocal and compliant in regards to her treatment, and self-advocates in school to ensure that she is getting what she needs.
Errin and her husband, Nick, asked Bella what she liked about San Diego for her recovery once she returned. Above all, Bella expressed to her parents that she missed one thing: her processing group. Thus, the idea for Bella Vita was born.
Bella Vita is not a treatment center. Nor is it a hospital. Rather, Bella Vita’s processing group model provides community and healing for young people with eating disorders and their families. They’re important for the growth and success of individuals with eating disorders, as life can become very isolating without anyone to discuss their experiences with outside of a hospital or treatment center environment.
“All it really is [are] kids getting together, and …and you just talk. You talk about the feelings you’re going through, what medicine you’re taking, what pediatrician is really good to work with,” Errin said. “[These are] all of the things that are really isolating…in Tucson, because there’s nobody here talking about eating disorders.”
Processing groups often exist in tandem with large-scale eating disorder treatment facilities so that families can process how to grapple with eating disorders and how to best accommodate those who suffer. However, these groups can be overlooked in the development of eating disorder recovery programs, as the isolating nature of eating disorders makes it very difficult for care to be consistent across the board. By addressing this gap, Bella Vita has been able to create an oasis for young people with eating disorders and their families, allowing them to meet with others in a collaborative and safe environment.
“We had eleven people at the first one. So there was clearly a need for it in our community.” Errin said. They began the group in June, after Bella returned from a treatment in San Diego in May.
With no inpatient facilities in Tucson, the infrastructure for a community to form around eating disorder recovery just doesn’t exist. Thus, Errin herself is taked with both executing the mindfulness activities for the processing groups and educating families about eating disorder treatment at-large.
“Nobody is teaching parents what our role in all of this is. No one is giving these parents permission to say ‘no, you will have to eat a meal every three hours, let’s figure this out together,’’” said Errin. “And so parents are on eggshells when they’re talking to their kiddos, and it's just such a scary place to not be empowered when you’re talking to your child, and nobody is helping these parents figure that out.”
As a former teacher for nine years, Errin utilizes the many activities that she learned from other processing groups and brings them to the families in Tucson, tackling tough subjects like perfectionism and being kind to yourself in moments of hardship through interactive mindfulness activities. Her strong leadership is crucial to the success of these groups, as she faces the daunting task of teaching others how to move through a uniquely difficult circumstance.
“I think we’re thankful that we got the education that we got in San Diego so we can pass it on to the next person,” said Errin. “Acts of service is something I believe in, and being able to pass my knowledge and my husband’s knowledge onto the next family is something that is very important. I’m thankful we’re able to help the next person.”
The benefits of the group go both ways. Even though Bella is not actively in treatment, Errin and her husband are able to interact with people who have gone through the same things they have.
“He and I need it just as much as other parents,” she said. “We need to be in a room where other people know where we’re going through, too.”
The story of Bella Vita, then, is one that combines the triumphs of a young girl and the strong will of her parents, to form a program that can change a community for the better.
“We really are thankful. We are thankful for Tucson the community for wrapping themselves around us. But we really have to do better. Mental health in Arizona is not a priority, and mental health in Tucson is definitely not a priority.”