Alumni Career Panel on Eating Disorders and Social Work Practice

eleni zimmerman
Eleni Zimmerman
Nicholas Esposito
Nicholas Esposito
Zoe Bisbing
Zoe Bisbing

On Friday, November 22, students gathered for an Alumni Career Panel on Eating Disorders and Social Work Practice. Moderated by student Andrea MacFarlane, MSW ’14, panelists discussed their career trajectories and gave insights into working with clients who struggle with eating disorders. Featured panelists were Nicholas Esposito, BSW ’09; Zoë Bisbing, MSW ’11; and Eleni Zimmerman, MSW ’12. After the discussion, students were invited to ask the alumni questions.

Esposito is the admissions coordinator at the Renfrew Center of Rador, a residential treatment facility for women with eating disorders. Bisbing is the primary therapist at Columbus Park Collaborative, an intensive outpatient practice geared toward individuals with eating disorders. Zimmerman works as a social worker and treatment care coordinator at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Center for Eating Disorders. She also provides individual outpatient meal support for patients at Columbus Park Collective.

Among the topics covered was the great gender disparity in eating disorders (ED). Esposito, for example, has never worked with a male patient. ED patients are predominantly female, though incidence of EDs in men do exist, and often go under-reported because their disorders present differently (i.e. a bodybuilder who exercises compulsively and injects steroids). This disparity extends to family intervention. Esposito spoke of the prevalence of the mother/daughter dyad in treatment, and the importance of “bringing a male to the [treatment] table, if that’s the constellation of the family.”

Different treatment modalities for eating disorders were also discussed. Evidentiary support has been found for the effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy in treating bulimia. The panelists stressed the power of group therapy in eating disorder treatment. “There is so much shame around these illnesses, and so much secrecy,” Bisbing said. “[Group] is the one place where they can be open.”

Panelists spoke on the prevalence of denial of eating disorders (both in patients and their families). This denial often becomes a barrier to treatment, and to overcome it “analogies become your very good friend,” said Esposito. “I often say to patients, ‘If you had diabetes, you would be taking your medications all the time. For you, you need to be taking your food all the time.’”

Asked what led them to this particular and difficult population, the panelists shared their distinct inspirations. Esposito said, “I was inspired by the intersection between eating disorders and family work and trauma work,” as well as the field’s potential for combining both micro and macro practice by working with clients and coordinating insurance authorization for treatment. Prior to becoming a therapist, Bisbing had a career in the performing arts, which provided her with an initial glimpse into the world of eating disorders. “As a dancer,” she said, “I was exposed to the unique struggle of performing artists. That was my limited understanding of eating disorders, and I was interested in it in general [until] I actually explored [the field], and discovered I was interested in it for many other reasons. It’s endlessly fascinating—challenging, but endlessly fascinating.”

For Zimmerman, who as an undergraduate was a mental health worker in a residential eating disorders facility, a master’s placement at New York State Psychiatric Institute’s Inpatient Eating Disorders Unit cemented her interest. “I didn’t realize what an advocacy role I would have. I took an active role in helping patients transition, setting the stage for the rest of their treatment.”

Asked to advise students who are interested in entering the field, the panelists stressed the importance of knowing the different interventions available, and when they are appropriate. They also emphasized the advantage of having varied clinical experience. A background in family work, for example, can be an invaluable tool for working with this population. Asked about the potential for burnout in this career path, Bisbing acknowledged its difficulty, but also the commitment of its practitioners: “The people who are in this field are really passionate about it.”