I recently wrote an article for the Florida Association of School Psychologist’s Winter Newsletter. I have reprinted it below so that my readers can see it. You can also check out the actual newsletter here.
Eating disorders are not just about food— they are related to many other factors such as ADHD, allergies, trauma, substance abuse and/or a myriad of mental illnesses. Walking into the residential center as a counselor, I did not expect to also gain experience working with women with substance abuse and serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. These women have taught me more about life in six months than anything I have learned in school. One of the most valuable lessons I learned from working here is how to keep my sense of self as a human rather than trying to be the completely together and collected therapist that I thought I had to be. While in this center, these women have experienced sickness, death, and as many ups and downs as life has to offer. It is impossible not to become affected emotionally. During this time, I met some of the kindest humans I have ever met in my life. Most of them would care about others so much more than they would themselves that it led to neglecting their own needs. This became more than a job for me. Instead, it also became a lesson to improve my own self-care and most importantly, how to be human while still being supportive and professional. Going into the field of psychology, I had this false idea that I needed to be somewhat emotionless in order to be a good professional. I heard horror stories of friends who visited professionals who then went on to speak about their own problems and completely overshadow the patient and the issue at hand. I was always careful not to self-disclose, until I realized how beneficial a little self-disclosure could be for a patient. It is important to validate the patient’s feelings and let them know that they are experiencing them in a way that is different from others, but it is also good to let them know that they are not alone. Since perfectionism and eating disorders usually go hand-in-hand, I make it known to my girls that I am not perfect. I acknowledge my mistakes when I make them and I use these opportunities to let them help me become a better professional. This becomes a great way of modeling because many girls who have eating disorders are overcritical and have a tough time handling feedback. Instead of continuing a group therapy session that I know the patients aren’t getting anything out of, I make sure to ask them what they need at that time or what they would specifically like to get out of a group. This allows the patients to feel like they are being heard. Since each group of women is different, this discussion allows me to understand the needs of this specific group so that I can cater my groups to them specifically. It is also a great way to turn around a group that is not participating. Sometimes asking the patient what they need or what they would like to get out of a therapy session can not only ensure that both the patient and professional are on the same page, but it lets the patient know that you care. This is especially beneficial for the adolescents, who may not think that they have any say in their treatment or their lives in general. It is so important to allow the adolescent to know that they can have control by choosing to improve their life. Their parents and school faculty members are just tools that they can use in order to guide them toward the right path, but ultimately, they need to be the ones who make the decision that they want to recover. One of the most beneficial things for my own research was asking the adolescents about their experience at school. I realized that many of them had so many different options when it came to where they could stay for lunch. Many of the girls expressed that they would stay in the library, where food was prohibited, in order to work on homework or avoid eating lunch. I would ask them what they thought would help girls who are struggling with an eating disorder be noticed by someone who could help. They said that they would be more likely to confide in a peer than an adult because they were so used to telling the adults they were okay when they really weren’t. They also expressed that it could be very uncomfortable for them to talk to an adult that they haven’t built a relationship with, but a peer with a specific position such as a peer counselor would make the experience much more comfortable. We also discussed how in order to speak to a peer counselor, they would have to fill out a form or go through an adult to start the process. Other girls expressed that they did not have any friends to eat with, which made it easier for them to hide and just not eat their lunch. We discussed the possibility of there being designated leaders in the library or the lunch room who would eat with students who didn’t have anyone to eat with or who were struggling with something in their life. Since adolescence can be extremely difficult and many people may not know what someone else is dealing with, these peer leaders can help inspire hope in students who need it. These peer leaders can be trained to recognize signs of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidality among students. They could also be there for students to come up to or would approach students who look like they need someone to talk to. During this discussion, when we were sharing ideas and thinking of new ways to help others, I saw the eyes light up in my adolescents for the first time. Their eyes were full of this new hope for the future and pride in the new program they have created with each other. It also helped fuel my inspiration because I was stuck in trying to figure out a way to target students who are struggling with an eating disorder when it was so easy for it to go unnoticed. I’ve had to sacrifice some of my holidays and free time in order to work with these women. Although some days can be draining or difficult, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience. I’ve taken the time to get to know the women who are in the center, beyond their eating disorder, and I have learned just how kind, caring, and loving they are. If I had a magic wand that allowed my patients to love themselves and took away all of the obstacles in their life, I would surely use it. Unfortunately, this is not the case, so I must be patient and help them get through it, one day at a time. I have found the importance in saying what you mean inside of waiting until it’s too late. These girls can come and go so quickly, some complete the program ready to tackle ED and take on the world, but others leave without feeling confident that they can recover. Sometimes just letting them know that you believe in them can make a huge difference in their world. All of these are lessons I will surely take into my future experience as a school psychologist because having one positive adult in a child’s life can change their perspective and allow them the confidence to succeed in their academic and personal lives.