By CHRISTINE PEAT
Published: October 17, 2013
The 2013 conference for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) was held from October 10-12 in Washington, D.C. My colleague, Dr. Cristin Runfola, and I were fortunate enough to attend and present Embody Carolina at this year’s conference both as first time attendees. The workshops and presentations were plentiful and offered a diversity of topics including leading-edge research, clinical techniques and skills, and a panel of family members and recovered patients who discussed their experiences. In many ways, however, the keynote addresses were the highlight of the conference. Dr. Tom Insel opened the conference with a somewhat unorthodox (and certainly unplanned) talk. Given the chaos that has ensued in the nation’s capital during the government shutdown, it was impossible for Dr. Insel to speak as a representative of the National Institute of Mental Health. So instead, he spoke as the parent of a daughter who battled anorexia nervosa. His deeply personal and moving talk served as an important reminder that even those who are well-versed in mental health and its treatment often feel powerless while watching a loved one suffer from an eating disorder. He called on us to remember that it is important to recognize the heterogeneity in eating disorders, that we must recognize the family as an integral part of the underlying culture, and that we must define the pathways to recovery in order to facilitate wellness. He plainly stated these reminders as key aims for research and advocacy efforts so that, “We won’t have to keep having the same conversation” year after year.
In addition to Dr. Insel’s keynote speech, Dr. Rebecca Puhl gave an inspiring talk on weight bias and its effects on health outcomes and quality of life. During her talk, she spoke about the significant impact of obesity/overweight on risk for bullying/teasing (particularly among children and adolescents), on the effect of weight stigma on the quality of healthcare provided by professionals, and even a discussion of how weight stigma can bias those of us who work with individuals with eating disorders. Unfortunately, the bulk of the research would suggest that weight stigma is pervasive and has the potential to not only affect likelihood of bullying/teasing, but to also have a negative impact on physical health and psychiatric outcomes. Thus, there is certainly room for improvement in the public policy domain and important research questions remain unanswered.
Dr. Ted Weltzin and Tim Freson wrapped up the keynote addresses with a much-needed talk on eating disorders and body image in men. They discussed the importance of asking the right questions both clinically and in research when it comes to assessing eating disorder symptoms in men. They also highlighted the sociocultural pressures on men and boys that exist perhaps now more than ever and how these pressures can not only serve to reinforce notions of stereotypical masculinity, but how these norms can contribute to the expression of eating disorders. To this end, Mr. Freson and his colleagues at Washington State University have prioritized the advancement of awareness campaigns to focus on body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among men. In fact, he is working with NEDA to make his media images and flyers available for public use.
In sum, the 2013 NEDA conference was a success whether you were a researcher, clinician, or advocate. The collective NEDA voice was even heard on the eerily quiet Capitol Hill as the NEDA Lobby Day still took place despite the shutdown. But perhaps what struck us most was the overarching theme of community building and advocacy that NEDA fostered throughout the conference experience.