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Women Helping Women

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Written by Lauren Hunsberger

Photography by Taryn Emerick

Whether it’s because women are more willing than ever to talk about mental health or because incidents are rising due to cultural pressures, the number of women diagnosed with depression and anxiety is increasing across all age groups. Dr. Mehri Moore has dedicated her entire career to addressing the trend.

Moore is a pioneer in the area for women’s mental health. In 1991, she founded the Moore Center for Eating Disorders, an intensive outpatient program in Bellevue  focused on supporting patients with eating disorders. It was the area's first.

“It was just me. From the early ’90s until around 2006, I was one of the only people serving these patients,” she says. “There was a long time where insurance companies didn’t recognize it. That was a very proud moment when I got the insurance companies to agree, accept and pay for treatment.”

Moore, at age 66, sold the center in 2012 and continued to work there until 2014, when she decided to retire.

“So I went traveling for four months but thought, Retirement is not for me,” she says. There was too much work to be done, and she had too many ideas about how to help people.

In 2015, Moore opened THIRA, a retreat-like space dedicated to women of all ages who suffer from depression or anxiety and the resulting behavioral challenges, such as addiction, disordered eating and suicidal thoughts. The center, located in Bellevue, is run exclusively by women for women.

“My observation in the eating disorder clinic was when we had men in the groups, a different phenomenon appeared. Women took a caring position and sat back a little. They did not put priority on themselves just because of a male presence,” Moore says. “Also, women who had issues with trauma closed up and didn’t talk about it because it didn’t feel safe. I wanted to create a safe environment and empower them.”

Moore says empowering women hits home hard for her. She was raised in Tehran, Iran, where the life choices for women are limited. At a young age, she made the complex and dangerous decision to immigrate to the UK and eventually the US to pursue a career in medicine.

She landed in Seattle at the University of Washington and started working in psychiatry and family therapy. During the first few years, she began to take an interest in eating disorder patients and became the medical director at Swedish Ballard for the eating disorder programs. The Moore Center quickly followed. THIRA is the result of all the experience she accumulated along the way. “It’s an opus of sorts,” she says.

At THIRA, however, she is focused on a broader goal. “Eating disorders are often symptoms of underlying issues—a mix of anxiety and depression. Those are the real roots of the problem,” Moore says.

To address anxiety and depression, she created two pillars. The first is nutritional education. At the center, patients are fed three organic meals a day plus snacks and are also educated about the connection between nutrition and mood dysregulation. The second pillar is community engagement, in which the women become active with volunteer programs or other interesting activities within and outside the center.

Part of the second pillar is the use of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT). “DBT is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that is combined with elements of eastern Zen philosophy. It’s dialectical because these two elements of change and acceptance are at play simultaneously,” she says. “It is an innovative approach that Dr. Marsha Linehan developed in the late ’80s/early ’90s. It’s an evidence-based form of therapy, and it’s been very effective for people with mood dysregulation.”

With DBT, patients are taught mindfulness and how to express themselves using different mediums—such as art therapy and other nonverbal modalities.

“Art gives our patients a meditative space to focus on being present and using feelings and emotions to express intimate and personal experiences, whether it’s trauma-based or shame or guilt,” Moore says. Fine arts are one way to do this, but she also advocates the use of drama, music and movement to aid in healing. “Having all the senses participate in recovery is just as important as changing behavior and cognition.”

Moore and the staff at THIRA have helped more than 1,000 patients in the short time since they have been open, and she is looking forward to helping many more by cultivating the safe space.

For more information, please visit thirahealth.com.

Signs and signals

Anxiety

  • Difficulty separating from a parent
  • Excessive worry
  • Nightmares
  • Having a hard time starting school
  • Transitioning between tasks is challenging
  • Pushback and anger
  • Avoidance
  • Performance anxiety
  • Extreme signs of not wanting to leave the house
  • Not having friends
  • Other panic symptoms

Depression

  • Anger
  • Outbursts
  • Rapid mood swings
  • Dysregulated moods

Eating Disorders

  • Secretive behavior
  • Not eating with family
  • Food disappearing
  • Bloodshot eyes, sometimes swelling in the face due to purging behavior
  • Restrictive behavior
  • Fatigue
  • Suppressed immune function
  • Social withdrawal
  • Excessive exercising
  • Ritualistic behavior around food
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