Changing the Conversation About Eating Disorders

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Sara_MI had the amazing opportunity to be a 2014 Active Minds Emerging Scholar. Through the Emerging Scholars Fellowship, Active Minds is changing the conversation about mental health by supporting independent research and creative projects by young people.

With the support of the fellowship and the guidance of my mentor, Dr. Jennifer Webb, I undertook a qualitative research project looking at recovery from Eating Disorders (EDs). More specifically, I looked at how ED survivors define “recovery” and at the possibility of growth through the recovery process.

To summarize a year-long 100+ page project into three bullet points:

  • I interviewed 10 women who have recovered from EDs.
  • My participants reported living full, rich, meaningful lives, which are not negatively impacted by the illness. This finding starkly contrasts the picture often painted in the ED community; rather than the disorder being experienced as a life-long struggle, the participants described their recovery journeys as empowering and resulting in transformative growth.
  • These findings suggest that people who have recovered from mental illness (in this case EDs) can experience growth similar to people who have recovered from other defining life experiences like cancer, a military deployment, or a natural disaster. This growth, called Posttraumatic Growth (or PTG), involves overcoming highly stressful life events and moving above and beyond a prior state of functioning and overall engagement in life.

Over the past year, recovered individuals, patients, families, researchers, and clinicians have reached out to discuss my research. We talked about how emphasis on poor prognoses may promote hopelessness among those who are struggling, in turn contributing to negative outcomes.

Many of the women I interviewed reported feeling hopeless and expressed wanting more information about recovery while in treatment. I believe we need to broaden the conversation about Eating Disorders: in order to facilitate recovery, we need to figure out how to talk about it in an empowering way.

The Active Minds Emerging Scholars Fellowship got me thinking about the importance of dissemination and magnifying the impact of research by sharing the work. With the support of my mentor, I have submitted abstracts to several conferences. This April I will be presenting at the International Conference on Eating Disorders in Boston and sharing my findings with professionals from all over the world.

In addition to influencing professionals, my research is reaching people currently affected by EDs (patients and families). I was extremely excited when an international Eating Disorders research team at the King’s College Institute of Psychiatry in London expressed interest in using portions of my interviews in a new clinical trial.

More specifically, with permission from my participants, they used my interview recordings to create inspirational podcasts for patients in a new treatment study! I am proud of the ways that my undergraduate research is already impacting professionals and consumers in the field. I look forward to continuing to find ways to reach people working towards recovery.

I could not have made it this far without the support of Active Minds. I have developed skills, insights, and relationships that are opening doors to other opportunities (manuscript preparation, potential collaboration on a book, the chance to speak with caregivers of people with EDs).

I want to thank everyone for continued support of the Active Minds Emerging Scholars Fellowship and the research it supports. I am grateful for how it is helping me to change the conversation about eating disorders.

Together, we are truly changing the conversation about mental health.