Understanding the Crucial Role of Peer Mentors in Eating Disorder Recovery

When she was first seeking treatment for her eating disorder, Maris Degener wasn’t sure if real recovery was even possible. Without a reliable role model for what full recovery actually looked like, she concluded that it simply wasn’t in reach, or worth all the time and energy. “The biggest message I received over and over again was that things might improve a little bit, but there would always be a ceiling,” she says. 

Fortunately, Degener kept going, and ultimately connected with others who’d been through similar journeys. “It wasn’t until I started finding others who were a bit further along in their recovery that I could start having these, ‘that’s possible?’ moments,” she says. Now, Degener carries forward this role by serving as the Director of Peer Mentorship at Equip, an evidence-based, virtual eating disorder treatment program. 

What is peer mentorship?

A peer mentor is someone who’s gone through recovery and is by a patient’s side to offer hope and guidance. They can provide a listening ear to the patient, help them work through their feelings about treatment, and share advice from their experience – typically through weekly meetings in person or over video call. 

Mentorship can also take the form of a family mentor, someone who has lived experience supporting a loved one with an eating disorder and can pass their wisdom on to other families. A family mentor meets regularly with the loved ones of a patient, whether that’s family members, friends, mentors, etc. Through these sessions, loved ones are able to have a dedicated space just for them. They can ask questions and reflect on their own emotions and needs.  

The roles of the peer mentor and family mentor are invaluable in treatment and, according to research, may make a significant difference in a patient successfully achieving lasting recovery.

What the research says about the importance of peer mentors for eating disorder support

While there are many programs and studies that speak to the power of mentorship on patients struggling with depression and anxiety, there has been less research focus on the power of mentorship for those affected by eating disorders. From the research we do have, there’s a strong indication that mentorship can have many positive effects on eating disorder recovery specifically. 

According to The International Journal of Eating Disorders’ 2019 study, peer mentorship was proven to be effective in reducing both cognitive and behavioral eating disorder symptoms. Out of sixty participants with bulimia nervosa, anorexia, or binge-eating disorder (BED), the patients who received mentorship from people with lived experience in recovery had fewer symptoms of body dissatisfaction and anxiety than those who received guidance from social supports who didn’t have any lived experience.

First-hand experiences also reflect these outcomes. Degener says that she wasn’t as able to open up to people who hadn’t experienced eating disorders themselves. “Eating disorders are highly complex and nuanced experiences,” she explains. “It’s very hard to relate to or fully understand how greatly they can impact someone’s life until you’ve had an intimate experience with one.”

Degener was finally able to open up about deeper issues when she connected with peer mentors. “So much of recovery can be tethered up in shame and secrecy, and to have someone who can meet you with true non-judgment and compassion can allow you to talk about the deepest challenges of an eating disorder in a new, supportive way.”

Mentorship is also a great tool to combat the stereotypes about eating disorders that can keep someone from seeking treatment. The myth that eating disorders predominantly affect thin, white, affluent girls can be very alienating. Being able to connect with someone with a shared experience or identity can be incredibly powerful in cultivating hope and faith that recovery is achievable for anyone.  

Peer Mentorship Help

Mentorship isn’t just valuable for patients: research has also shown that it can also make a significant difference for the loved ones of the patient. According to a 2020 report conducted by F.E.A.S.T. in collaboration with Project HEAL, parents greatly benefited from their own peer support. When they had access to  education materials, personalized strategies, and their own support person, they were far better equipped to show up for their loved one. 

“Serving as a family mentor gives new meaning to everything I’ve learned the really hard way about helping a child through eating disorder recovery,” says Equip Family Mentor Kristi Humston. “The gift of hindsight, however, is seeing how the experiences we didn’t ask for but survived can result in hope and lived ‘expertise’ that helps to make the journey for others a little easier.”

While trained clinicians—like a medical doctor, therapist, and dietitian—are essential to treating eating disorders, there are some insights that can only come from someone who has been through it themselves. These pieces of wisdom often give parents the strength and motivation they need to carry on.

Family mentorship matters too

Mentorship isn’t just valuable for patients: research has also shown that it can also make a significant difference for the loved ones of the patient. According to a 2020 report conducted by F.E.A.S.T. in collaboration with Project HEAL, parents greatly benefited from their own peer support. When they had access to  education materials, personalized strategies, and their own support person, they were far better equipped to show up for their loved one. 

“Serving as a family mentor gives new meaning to everything I’ve learned the really hard way about helping a child through eating disorder recovery,” says Equip Family Mentor Kristi Humston. “The gift of hindsight, however, is seeing how the experiences we didn’t ask for but survived can result in hope and lived ‘expertise’ that helps to make the journey for others a little easier.”

While trained clinicians—like a medical doctor, therapist, and dietitian—are essential to treating eating disorders, there are some insights that can only come from someone who has been through it themselves. These pieces of wisdom often give parents the strength and motivation they need to carry on.

Forging a deeper connection that reinforces recovery

“There are many small but highly impactful moments in recovery that can be hard to go through alone,” Degener says. “I’ll always remember an Equip peer mentor supporting a patient through sorting out some old clothes that they were having a difficult time parting with. The peer mentor could offer jokes or distraction when needed, hold space while the patient cried, or simply be there quietly as a gesture of support. Recovery can be so lonely and hard to describe at times. To just have someone to walk alongside you can be incredibly meaningful.”

Another beautiful part about mentorship is the mutually beneficial relationship it fosters. Degener, for example, credits her role as a mentor as having benefited her own long-term recovery. “I find it to be a healthy source of accountability,” she says. “I get to talk to individuals every day about the benefits of recovery and the value in challenging the eating disorder, and in that, I’m reaffirming those truths for myself, too. At its best, mentorship can be a wonderfully meaningful relationship for everyone involved.”

If you’re curious about mentorship, or looking to get peer support today, check out this guide as a first step. You can also visit Equip to learn more about their treatment approach that combines clinical expertise with unique insights only those with lived experience can provide. 

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