Columbus eating disorder clinic battles assumptions about the disease

Chloe Teasley
Cheryl Ryland, CEO, Center for Balanced Living

The Center for Balanced Living was created out of desperate need. When it was founded in 2001, there were no services just for eating disorders in Central Ohio beyond individual counselors like Laura Hill and Cheryl Ryland—the two who launched the center. They became colleagues at Ohio State University’s Harding Hospital, which did offer services until 1999. After that, the two saw clients as outpatient therapists, but without the much-needed dieticians, medical teams and inpatient services. Ryland becomes emotional as she remembers the catalyst for the founding of the center. One day, Hill came into her office and explained that she had just promised a discouraged client she’d open a clinic of her own if the client would just hang on and get treated there.

“She said, ‘You’re coming with me, right?’ I said ‘OK,’ ” says Ryland, who recently took over as CEO following Hill’s retirement. “And we never turned back.”

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They initially opened the clinic on Ohio State’s campus. It has moved a couple times since then and has landed on a property it owns that backs up into Camp Mary Orton in Worthington.

Today, the Center for Balanced Living is the only free-standing nonprofit eating disorder clinic in Ohio and the only independent clinic in Central Ohio. Many other clinics that have opened in the past few years are for-profit and funded with private equity.

“The fact that the center is a nonprofit means that it’s hard work and often not financially rewarding,” says Jen Carter, a sport psychologist at Ohio State and former center employee. She also sings Ryland’s praises. “This is a new leadership role—it’s exciting to see the new directions the center will take,” she says.

The center offers outpatient and partial hospitalization services. It is treating 500 clients at any given time, with disorders ranging from binge eating (most clients), bulimia and anorexia nervosa.

It uses evidence-based treatment that may contradict ideas people have about eating disorders, says Ryland. Research shows an eating disorder is a genetic disease of the brain that can be seen during an MRI scan. It can be triggered by starting a diet or getting an illness that affects one’s ability to eat. She explains that when someone with an eating disorder eats, there is an uncontrollable response of anxiety. This is contrary to the popular idea that it’s a female disease of thinness or control.

One thing that makes the center’s approach unique is that it has built a “five-day model of care” for anorexia based on this research. She describes the treatment as “refeeding,” or helping clients through the scary process of eating the food their bodies need based on macronutrients, and learning how to have victory over the anxiety. “They are the go-to innovator when it comes to the neurobiology of eating disorders,” says Carter.

Angelo Thomas sought help from the center while also a student at the Columbus College of Art and Design. He was in the partial hospitalization program, called M’s Place—a commitment of around six hours daily. He didn’t think it was going to work. “I wasn’t a big fan of the center at first, actually,” he says. He stayed in the program for only four weeks, but it had a huge impact on his life. The film student has gone on to create a documentary where he interviewed people from the center. He’s also written a book and film based on his journey to wellness. His film and senior thesis, called The Incredible Jake Parker (also the title of his book) tells the story of a famous musician who is battling an eating disorder. It premieres May 3, 2020, at the Gateway Film Center.

Although Thomas’ time at the center was short, he received tailor-made help. “My therapist and case manager at the center was really great about preparing me for that transition,” he says.

One thing on Ryland’s mind as CEO is the desire to educate people on the often very misunderstood origins of eating disorders. “Nobody [goes to the doctor] and says, ‘I think I have an eating disorder,’ so we need to educate [the public],” she says.

Chloe Teasley is staff writer for Columbus CEO.

8001 Ravines Edge Court, Columbus 43235

Mission: To provide treatment, education and prevention of eating disorders.

CEO: Cheryl Ryland

Employees: 43

Annual clients: 1,800

Revenue: $3.3 million (2019 projected)

Center for Balanced Living