Eating disorders are complicated and chronic mental illnesses that threaten severe physiological and psychological consequences, with anorexia nervosa carrying the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. I developed a fascination in adolescence for these unique illnesses and wanted to study how they develop, how they take over young, bright adolescents, and then learn what can be done to combat them.
I discovered that eating disorders are best attacked early in the illness, making adolescents the best treatment candidates. Adolescents’ dropout rates from treatment programs are significantly lower than in adult eating-disorder populations. Teens also attain remission in higher numbers than adults, with overall more favorable treatment outcomes.
I found an emerging and exciting field of eating-disorders research dedicated to the questions that I had, and I felt compelled to be a part of it, particularly in the pediatric population.
At UIC, while pursuing a bachelor’s degree in applied psychology in the Department of Psychology, I started working as a research assistant in Stewart Shankman’s Affective Science and Physiology Laboratory, where I took part in a study looking at the relationship between bulimia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder at the physiological level. It was there that I gained an appreciation and fondness for research.
I went on to complete an internship with Daniel Le Grange at the University of Chicago Eating Disorder Program, where I learned about an innovative, family-based treatment for adolescents with eating disorders known as the Maudsley method.
The key element in family-based treatment is that parents play essential roles in the treatment process. This idea departs from the traditional views of treatment for eating disorders, where parents are often left out of the process altogether. The outcomes so far have been very encouraging, with results of randomized controlled trials showing two thirds of study patients with anorexia nervosa reaching recovery by the end of treatment, and 75-90 percent of them being weight-restored at a five-year follow-up.
To continue in this work, I applied for a Fulbright Student Award to conduct research in adolescent eating disorders at The Hospital for Sick Children—SickKids—in Toronto, Canada.
SickKids is at the forefront of treatment and clinical application of the Maudsley method and other forms of evidence-based treatment for children and adolescents with eating disorders. The SickKids Eating Disorders Program has an inpatient unit, day hospital program and outpatient clinic. They are particularly well known for using multi-family group therapy as a treatment option for eating disorders in which the principles of family-based treatment remain intact and families are also able to support and relate to each other throughout the process.
Preliminary research has found the multi-family method to be equally as effective as traditional family-based treatment, making it a potentially viable option for families that do not respond to the Maudsley method.
At SickKids I am part of multiple research projects under psychiatrist and Principal Investigator Leora Pinhas, including an international multi-site project aiming to redefine the criteria for eating disorders. This will entail modifying current criteria for eating disorder diagnoses in addition to creating new diagnostic categories; revisions to the diagnostic criteria will have lasting implications, both in clinical work and in future research.
I am working to get a paper published in an academic journal, an arduous but rewarding experience.
— Julianne Faust (former Cary Grove High School student)