Heather Russo

Paul Wellman

Heather Russo

Health: Eating Disorder Clinic

La Ventana Opens Its Doors in Santa Barabara

Tucked in the cul-de-sac at the top of East Arrellaga Street, La Ventana Treatment Programs is the newest eating-disorder clinic in Santa Barbara. Freshly painted blue-gray walls fill the rooms of the small facility, which treats people who suffer from bulimia, anorexia, binging, over-exercise, alcoholism, and drug addiction. La Ventana was founded in Thousand Oaks and has also spread to Santa Paula and Ventura. Most of the program’s clients seek treatment for bulimia — a disorder that one percent of Americans suffer from, studies suggest.

The clinic is an intensive outpatient program (IOP) that offers half-day and full-day sessions that range from group and family therapy to art and dance-movement therapy. “That’s where we see the most dramatic results,” said Heather Russo, who is the program’s Southern California regional clinical director. A self-described women’s advocate and a licensed marriage and family therapist, Russo found her niche at La Ventana because she can “empower women” by connecting self-esteem and eating disorders. (Eating disorders are more common among women, but the clinic treats some men.)

The rehab also offers lessons about the “chemistry of joy,” and patients work with dietitians, cook their own meals, and eat together. They practice the exchange system — half a cup of rice equals one carbohydrate, for instance — instead of counting calories. Clients tend to be between 15 and 35 years old; the clinic is open six days a week and staffed with seven specialists. A bright-red minivan shuttles students to and from school when needed.

La Ventana Treatment Programs recently gained nonprofit status, which means it can raise money to provide scholarships for students. Out-of-pocket costs are $350 for a half day and $700 for a full day, but they also accept insurance.

In 2008, the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act required health insurance plans to offer mental-health and substance-abuse benefits to the same extent that they cover medical and surgical care. Now, with the Affordable Care Act, insurance companies can no longer deny care to patients who have a pre-existing condition (like an eating disorder). And since eating disorders largely affect young people, the fact that the federal law allows young adults to stay on their parents’ plan until they are 26 years old is also good news, Russo said.

The Guardian recently reported that the number of young people — especially teenagers — being admitted to the hospital because of an eating disorder is significantly higher than it was in years past. One in 20 people in the community have an eating disorder, according to the La Ventana website.

“My dream would be to sit down with every mom in town and talk about the dos and don’ts,” said Kelsey MacDougall, the outreach coordinator for the Santa Barbara clinic. To coincide with National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which starts February 23, MacDougall plans to visit UCSB, Santa Barbara City College, and area high school campuses to promote a positive body image and educate people. “I think, overall, there’s a shallow awareness of people who haven’t experienced it themselves.”

(There are two other eating-disorder clinics in Santa Barbara: Recovery Road Eating Disorders and Central Coast Treatment Center. A handful of therapy centers provide treatments for a range of conditions, as well.)

Contact La Ventana at (805)-777-3873 or (800) 560-8518 (for immediate assistance), or see

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