Body issues, disordered eating are topics of new Rider counseling course

Dr. Juleen Buser has created the new graduate-level course
Keith Fernbach

Starting in the summer of 2020, Rider University will begin offering an online graduate course designed to educate students in the counseling program on how to work with clients who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders.

The course, "Prevention and Intervention for Body Image and Disordered Eating," is being created by Dr. Juleen Buser, an associate professor in Rider’s Department of Graduate Education, Leadership, and Counseling who has focused much of her research in this area.

The rationale behind the course is that body dissatisfaction is very prevalent in society and there’s a huge need for accessible information on how to prevent this from leading to serious health issues.

“The goal is to demonstrate how we, as counselors, can work with parents or partners or friends who are worried about someone in their life who might be struggling with body dissatisfaction,” says Buser. “We can offer them support, talk to them about how they might be able to help foster a healthier body attitude in their friend, partner or child, and discuss how they can play a role in helping to protect that person from engaging in disordered eating patterns.”

Buser says that while elements of this topic are currently covered as part of other courses in the counseling program, she believes it’s important to have a course solely dedicated to the nuances of preventing and treating disordered eating.

She explains that even though disordered eating is considered a behavioral addiction and shares certain similarities with other addictive behaviors, there is one key difference. “You have to eat,” she says. “You can abstain from alcohol your whole life, but you have to learn to have a healthy relationship with food. Thus, the treatment for someone struggling with body image or disordered eating may be very different than it would be for someone struggling with a substance issue.”

The course will focus on both the prevention and treatment of disordered eating. “We’re going to spend a good portion of the class talking about how you might help individuals prevent negative patterns from developing,” Buser says, explaining that authors in the field have noted that seemingly innocuous comments can trigger a person who is vulnerable to body image issues.

Moreover, based on recommendations in the literature, Buser says it’s important for teachers, parents and others to reflect on their own body image attitudes and experiences. She notes that authors in the field have accentuated the value of this self-reflection in order to ultimately promote positive views about the body and food and assist in avoiding triggering remarks.

She also discusses literature on guidelines for programs where, for example, people who have struggled with body image issues come and speak to students. She says there’s a fine line between offering a helpful cautionary tale and inadvertently romanticizing disordered eating for some students. “Authors have underscored that you don’t want to talk about things like weight, or what you ate or didn’t eat, because that could be triggering,” she says.

In terms of treatment, the course will look at what kinds of strategies one might use to help individuals who are already exhibiting problematic body image issues or disordered eating patterns. Various techniques will be discussed, including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, a form of therapy that draws on, among other things, a focus on client values.

“You talk to clients about what their core values are in life and how their current disordered eating may be getting in the way of that, and you try to instill motivation for a desire to live more in accord with their values.”

Buser’s own research findings will also be a component of the course. She previously conducted a study on individuals who have struggled with body dissatisfaction but didn’t develop disordered eating, and through this work she and her co-researchers identified four protective factors. The course will examine those factors — which include having a strong support system, valuing health, the belief that engaging in injurious behavior will not be effective in helping them achieve their desired goal, and having an appreciation of their love of food and the role it plays in their lives — and discuss how counselors can use this knowledge to prevent injurious behavior with their own clients.

Those interested in learning more about "Prevention and Intervention for Body Image and Disordered Eating" can contact Dr. Juleen Buser at [email protected].