From Social Support Mentor to Research Volunteer

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Written by Natalie Dicker.

Ever wonder how helping people with eating disorders and studying ways to help people with eating disorders intersect? If so, you are not alone. The bridge from scientific practice to research is a tricky one to understand, for patients and casual observers alike. As a psychology major, I’ve enjoyed a range of volunteer experiences which, taken together, have taught me something about how these worlds intersect and when they work in tandem.

I recently completed a six-month period as a volunteer mentor for a study called Communities of HEALing. This study, a collaboration between Columbia Center for Eating Disorders and Project HEAL, was designed to evaluate whether two types of mentorship are helpful for those with eating disorders. There is a long-held belief that mentorship by a recovered peer, someone who formerly had a similar experience, (e.g., Alcoholics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, etc.) provides a unique level of support and a model that full recovery is possible.

Researchers at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders partnered with Project HEAL to help evaluate the effectiveness of Project HEAL’s mentorship programs as they were being implemented across the country. Evelyn Attia, MD and Lisa Ranzenhofer, PhD designed a randomized controlled trial to compare two types of mentorship — Peer Mentorship and Social Support Mentorship — to a wait-list control. In Peer Mentorship, the focus of the program was specifically on eating disorder recovery. Mentees worked with a mentor who previously struggled with, and had since recovered from, an eating disorder, and mentors drew upon their own experience to provide support and instill hope about the possibility of full recovery and the benefits it confers. Social Support Mentorship, in contrast, was designed to address the social withdrawal and disconnection from life outside the illness that often happens when someone is in the throes of an eating disorder, although the mentor in this case had never suffered from an eating disorder. The overall goal of the program was to help those with an eating disorder explore interests, hobbies, activities, and expand their leisure time options in a structured way, in the context of a supportive relationship, since it is common that eating disorders can become a central organizing force in one’s life, interfering with social and interpersonal connectedness and activities.

I became interested in becoming a social support mentor for Project HEAL when I heard about a friend’s positive experience with it. Initially, I received training in how to support someone with an eating disorder without having the focus of our meetings be on the illness itself. As an online mentor, I met with my mentee weekly over Facetime (other mentors and mentees met in person). We met weekly for an hour over the course of six months. To match the goal of trying out and figuring out leisure time options, sessions could be filled with a range of activities, including arts and crafts, listening to/writing music, political discussions/volunteering/activism, podcast explorations, or even creating individualized self-care ideas. Ideas were offered by Project HEAL and Columbia, but each mentor-mentee pair could choose their own activities according to what sounded interesting to mentees. As a mentor, I also participated in bi-weekly supervision calls with the Project HEAL and Columbia teams to discuss challenges and/or positive experiences from our sessions and to hear how it was going for other mentors.

I hope that my mentee benefited from the social support I provided. I can say for certain that I did, and in some unexpected ways. Besides the excitement that I received from this break in my daily routine, I enjoyed learning about my mentee’s unique interests and experiencing her strengths. One of the most powerful and enjoyable payoffs was the comradery that developed by forming a relationship with my mentee, the other mentors, and professionals involved in the process.

Shortly after my work with my mentee ended, I sought to continue volunteering in the eating disorders field, but in another capacity. Fueled by what I have learned about eating disorders from those affected and those helping people to recover, I am now volunteering with the research team at the Columbia Center for Eating Disorders. Here, I am learning how scientists try to systematically study these complex disorders. In order to maintain confidentiality, I am not working on the Communities of HEALing study, but instead on other ongoing studies. I have had the opportunity to observe study procedures, assist with recruitment, and help test a new food-related computer task that probes thinking processes (like decision making) that may contribute to restrictive eating.

Getting to know the team here is clarifying how research informs treatment and vice versa. Researchers and clinicians get further working collaboratively rather than operating in silos, and in some cases, the very same person is both a researcher and a clinician. Regardless of how it unfolds, communication between these worlds benefits patients. In the case of the Communities of HEALing study, through a partnership, Project HEAL was not only able to offer potentially-helpful programs to people with eating disorders, but gain knowledge about if, and for whom, these are effective. For me, the introduction to one aspect of this field inspired me to seek out others, and I am excited to see where this path will lead next.

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