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Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta: Measuring what works

Apr 09, 2018
Executive Director Sue Huff with student Milena Miller at poster presentation, Pscyhologist's Association of Alberta Spring 2017.
Executive Director Sue Huff with student Milena Miller at poster presentation, Pscyhologist's Association of Alberta Spring 2017.

What does research tell us about reducing the shame and stigma that often accompany eating disorders? That's the question psychology student Milena Miller tackled for her community partner, the Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta.

Since 2014, the network has offered professionally-facilitated support groups for individuals with eating disorders and for their families and friends. From the first, participants filled out surveys at the beginning and end of their time in a support group. Results showed obvious gains in their feelings of hope, connection, and empowerment--but levels of shame and stigma seemed to remain high. When offered the services of a King's research student, Sue Huff, the network's executive director, seized the opportunity to look for ways to bring those levels down.

Supported by Dr. Heather Looy, a King's psychology professor who has had her own battles with bulimia, Miller dug into the research. She found little written about shame and stigma related to eating disorders, but enough to realize those feelings are complex and hard to shift. She also discovered a related concept, self-compassion, which could act as a shield against shame. With Dr. Looy, she created a list of questions validated by other research to measure both shame and self-compassion. They then met with Huff, who helped hone the list based on experience with a daughter who has lived through anorexia and with countless families encountered through her work in the network.

The resulting survey is being used to measure the effectiveness of all the network's support groups. Initial analysis is showing significant increases in self-compassion and some reduction in shame, although less marked. What's more, Miller and Dr. Looy are doing a more rigorous analysis of previous surveys than has occurred in the past and finding more reduction in shame and stigma than the network realized.

"It's nice to know we are having a positive impact," Huff says. "We've been sharing our research with the provincial government, our primary funder, which helps them feel like they are investing taxpayer dollars in something that has proven to be effective."

Already, excerpts from the work were presented at two conferences and appeared in an Eating Disorders Association of Canada newsletter. "Having a small university working with a small charity that is actually gaining attention from a professional body tells you there is a huge appetite for more research and study on eating disorders," Huff says. "It's one of the least funded areas of research, even though it has the highest mortality rate of any mental or psychological illness."

This is Dr. Looy's first foray into community engaged research. Translating data into reports that make sense to community partners is a skill she's still learning, she says, but one that will also help to make her fundamental research more accessible.

Miller says the project has given her a new appreciation of the role research can play in practice. "My plan is to become a counsellor, and after doing this project, I'm really inspired by everything the network is doing," she adds. "Maybe someday I'll be able to counsel those with eating disorders."