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Symposium Speaker Series: Healers Helping Healers

The 9th Annual Veritas Collaborative Virtual Symposium on Eating Disorders offers an opportunity for our community of experts and other leaders in the field to collectively grow our understanding of what it means to provide best-practice eating disorder care to diverse populations. Our Symposium Speaker Series provides an introduction to the keynote presenters and ideas that will be explored in greater detail at the virtual Symposium.

Beth Hartman McGilley,  Ph.D., FAED, CEDS, is a psychologist and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist.  As a nationally recognized expert, Beth has more than 35 years of experience in the treatment of eating and related disorders, body image, athletes, trauma, and grief. She has presented, edited, and published extensively in the field of eating disorders—and she has walked the path of eating disorder recovery, herself. We recently caught up with Dr. Hartman McGilley to discuss her upcoming keynote presentation, “Healers Helping Healers” where she will discuss the barriers facing healthcare professionals in recovery from their own eating disorders and how our community can better support them.

Veritas Collaborative: What do we know about healthcare professionals in recovery from an eating disorder who work in the field of eating disorders?

Dr. Hartman McGilley: There actually has been some research into this subject. On the low end, the prevalence of lived experience within the eating disorder community is 25 percent. I tend to think that the actual prevalence is much higher, but it’s still an impressive figure to contemplate. One-fourth—or more—of our field has experienced an eating disorder.

Veritas Collaborative: Why do you think the reported figures don’t accurately capture the actual prevalence? Are there stigmas or other barriers in our field that prevent healthcare professionals from disclosing their lived experiences?

Dr. Hartman McGilley: Unfortunately, the eating disorder community isn’t immune to mental health stigmas, which are exacerbated by the fact that we don’t have a clear consensus on what it means to be recovered from an eating disorder. Can people fully recover or are they always recovering? For healthcare professionals who have experienced eating disorders, hidden in the debate is an implicit judgment on their overall fitness to provide care. It’s no wonder that many—especially younger professionals entering the field—are reluctant to share their lived experiences.

Veritas Collaborative: Let’s talk more about recovery. How does our field view healthcare professionals who are in recovery? What challenges do they face when it comes to maintaining recovery?

Dr. Hartman McGilley: In the absence of data to inform and direct the hiring of recovered professionals, our field has taken an informal approach that says: “We accept people with lived experience—if they’ve been recovered for at least  _____ amount of time.” Three years is what I’ve most commonly heard to be a minimum requirement. An additional problem with this approach is that we don’t have a good definition of what it means to be “fully recovered” from an eating disorder. Eating disorders can have comorbid difficulties, like depression and anxiety. Does “fully recovered” mean you’re not experiencing food-related symptoms? Does it mean you’re no longer depressed or anxious?

My approach and lived experience tell me that I am fully recovered from anorexia, but I have never fully recovered from anxiety. So, am I not considered recovered because my anxiety never went away? It’s a question that many of us in the field ask ourselves and the answer is complicated.

I’ve been recovered for 35 years from my eating disorder.  A couple of years ago, a perfect storm of medical and dental issues prevented me from being able to eat and I became very aware of vulnerable I was to relapse. Thankfully, I was very self-aware of my risk of relapse and I was surrounded by the best eating disorder providers in the world—but what if I wasn’t? What if I had relapsed? Where would someone like me, with all of my years of experience treating eating disorders, go for help treating my eating disorder?  I am working now with others to create resources and connections for healthcare professionals at all levels of practice who are struggling.

Veritas Collaborative: It is so important that we continue to shine a light on this overlooked population within our community. How can our field better support healthcare professionals who are navigating their careers and eating disorder recovery?

Dr. Hartman McGilley: In my experience, the therapeutic community tends to be more accepting of those with lived experience than the academic community, but as a field, we need to create more spaces where these professionals can find the support they need regardless of their discipline. To this end, I helped co-found a special interest group called Professionals &  Recovery at the Academy for Eating Disorders. The AED is one of the field’s flagship organizations, yet many professionals within its ranks felt uncomfortable sharing their lived experiences. We’ve presented workshops on healthcare providers who are in recovery from eating disorders and some of the research that’s been done about this population came out of our special interest group.

I can think of a few other resources—my colleagues Rachel Millner and Carolyn Costin have online platforms to connect with recovered professionals or those in recovery—but there is still much work to be done in this area.

Veritas Collaborative: We often tell the people who come to us for help with eating disorders that they are not alone—and it seems our field needs to do a better job of conveying that message to professionals who are in recovery. Their lived experience matters and it enriches our community. Are they also uniquely suited to work in the eating disorders treatment space?

Dr. Hartman McGilley: I liken working in the field of eating disorders without lived experience to becoming fluent in a different language. There is a point where you become so proficient, that the language becomes second nature. You can dream about it! I think the difference between providers with and without lived experience, is that for recovered professionals, it is our native tongue. For a client, the difference may or may not be meaningful or noticeable. And it’s important to note that sharing the same diagnosis with a client doesn’t mean we have shared or even similar experiences of our eating disorders, nor does it necessarily confer a special capacity to treat that disorder.

Lived experiences, properly sourced and therapeutically shared, can create a foundation for deeper connections with some patients because we can viscerally feel their experiences ‘first-hearted,’ so to speak. Kinesthetic attunement is also a skill that can be learned and/or comes naturally to some healers. Certainly, it isn’t sufficient or necessary to have lived experience to be both an expert and empathic eating disorder provider—we are all subject to the same inadequacies and limitations. But there is something about shared experiences between clients and clinicians that can provide a sense of communion, breaking down certain barriers to recovery more readily or sooner.

Veritas Collaborative: Helping our community overcome barriers is one of the reasons we are coming together for the Veritas Collaborative 9th Annual Virtual Symposium on Eating Disorders. What is the one major takeaway you hope attendees take home from your presentation, “Healers Helping Healers?”

Dr. Hartman McGilley: Hope. I want people to know how important it is to keep the porch light of hope ablaze. You can get better, and even if you aren’t fully recovered—however, we choose to define that word— your quality of life and health can still measurably and meaningfully improve no matter how long you’ve lived with an eating disorder, and you do not have to suffer alone!

Seize the opportunity to virtually connect with our community of experts, deepen your professional network, and grow your understanding of what it means to provide best-practice eating disorders care to diverse populations—all while earning up to 26.0 continuing education credits. Register today for the completely virtual Veritas Collaborative 9th Annual Symposium on Eating Disorders – use code VERITAS20 and save 20% on the Three Day Symposium Package.