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Auburn Eating Disorders Clinic

Psychological sciences researchers provide evidence-based treatment to students, community

April Smith and Tiffany Brown training graduate student clinicians

Eating disorders are among the deadliest psychological disorders, and close to 30 million Americans struggle with one over their lifetime. Treatment for anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and other disorders are a critical step to recovery.

Researchers in the Department of Psychological Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts are working to provide and improve life-saving treatment through the Auburn Eating Disorders Clinic, or AEDC.

The AEDC, located in the Psychological Services Center on Auburn’s campus, provides evidence-based services to treat clients who struggle with disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. Assistant Professors of Psychological Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts April Smith and Tiffany Brown co-direct the clinic.

“If individuals are concerned with their body dissatisfaction or eating behaviors, there is hope for treatment and there are good treatments out there,” Smith said. “Tiffany and I have worked in the eating disorder field for over a decade, and both of us coming to Auburn in 2021 ended up being really serendipitous. We both wanted to open an eating disorder clinic based on our previous research and clinical training to fill the huge need for it in our community.”

Smith is the director of the Research on Eating Disorders and Suicidality, or REDS, Lab at Auburn University. Her research explores suicide and self-injury rates of individuals with eating disorders. She also specializes in working with veterans and families.

“When we got to Auburn, we noticed the real need for research and clinical work, specifically targeting eating disorders,” Smith said. “Between Tiffany and me, we actually have training to work with people with eating disorders across the lifespan and across all identity and gender presentations, so we saw ourselves as being uniquely positioned to work with kids, families, adults, Auburn students and community members.”

Brown is the principal investigator of the Appearance Concerns, Eating and Treatment, or ACCEPT, Lab. Her work focuses on body image and eating disorders in diverse populations, including LGBTQ+ and across genders.

That work, along with her specialized training in Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder, or ARFID, a lesser-known eating disorder characterized by restriction or avoidance of eating due to non-body image related reasons, informs the clinic’s practice and research.

“Men, LGBTQ+ individuals, and individuals with ARFID across the lifespan are often underrepresented in outpatient treatment, even though we know that those particular groups do have eating disorders at relatively high rates within the community,” Brown said. “We’ve had some really unique community cases in the clinic that have provided a wealth of information for potential new protocols in patients with eating disorders for populations that we don’t often see in community-based clinics.”

Under Smith and Brown’s supervision, graduate student clinicians at the AEDC administer treatment services grounded in cognitive behavioral therapy that regularize eating and encourage healthy ways to cope with distressing thoughts and urges about eating and body image.

The practice draws on Smith and Brown’s combined research on suicidality, veterans, families, children, LGBTQ+ populations, gender differences, lifespan as well as interoception, a construct involving the brain-body relationship and understanding feelings of hunger and fullness.

Brown hopes the clinic builds on existing knowledge of how to treat eating disorders, including novel treatments for boys/men, emerging disorders such as ARFID, and equitable care across underserved populations.

“Compared to many eating disorders, ARFID is more equitable across genders and affects boys/men and girls/women at equal rates.  As a result, incorporating ARFID training into the clinic has allowed us to see more patients across genders,” Brown said. “We really are very passionate about understanding that eating disorders affect everybody: all ages, races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities, body sizes and across socioeconomic status. Culturally, we don’t always think about eating disorders quite like that.”

Smith said the clinic also serves to improve existing treatments.

“Unfortunately, we do know that even our best treatments for eating disorders oftentimes only work about 50% of the time, and then we do see that upwards of a third of people who are successfully treated relapse,” Smith said. “There’s a real need within the field broadly to make our treatments more effective for more people and to make them last. We’re excited to be able to be contributing to that research within our clinic.”

Treatment plans at the AEDC are based on evidence and tailored to each client’s unique needs. Individuals or families struggling with eating disorders, disordered eating or body image concerns make good candidates for the clinic’s services.

“Getting help is difficult. We recognize that, and we really try to make sure that our clinic is welcoming and understanding,” Brown said. “Early intervention is critical to success and people can be successfully treated and recover from an eating disorder. There is a lot of hope if you are struggling. Know you’re not alone, and that on the community side, we’re here and would love to be a resource for folks.”

Depending on availability, the AEDC will begin accepting new clients in Spring 2023, including children and families. For more information, contact, call 334-844-4889 or take the screener online.

This story first appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of Auburn Research.

Tags: Psychological Sciences Research

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