During her years as a medical social worker, social work PhD student Aubrey Jones watched her patients struggle with emotional and psychological stresses brought on by mental health issues, including body image.
Jones said she recognized how different aspects of her patients’ health were connected.
“I wanted to set up our patients up to go home as healthy as possible, both mentally and physically,” she said.
Since entering UT’s program in 2016, Jones has researched a range of health topics including social disparities—determinants of health, mental health, and family well-being that are tied to different levels of social advantage. Her studies have allowed her to draw from her experience as a medical social worker and as a crisis responder for the State of Tennessee.
Working with colleagues at the Center for Body Image Research and Policy at the University of Missouri, Jones recently coauthored a study for Social Work in Public Health on the benefits of eating breakfast and family meals for adolescent body image.
She discussed the study’s findings, her other health research, and her professional experiences in social work.
How do adolescents benefit from eating breakfast and having meals with their family?
Our study looked at a nationally representative sample of more than 12,000 adolescents in grades 5 through 10. We had three key findings:
- First, a better body image was related to eating breakfast more frequently. There are a number of reasons teens skip breakfast, such as not having time or not being hungry, but it is also very possible that some youth are skipping breakfast to restrict calories. We know that food and calorie restriction is harmful and leads to long-term weight gain, but it is a tactic that is often used for weight loss.
- Second, youth in the study who ate breakfast with their family more frequently had better body image.
- Third, adolescents in the study who ate dinner with their family more frequently had better body image.
The overall takeaway from the study is that positively affecting body image issues is about more than health food options or breakfast; it is about connection and relationships. Public health experts often discuss the benefits of family meals. This study provides evidence of one more benefit.
Why is this important for you as a social worker?
Social workers are often invested in the well-being of families. We can speculate that family meals may increase communication and connection among youth and their families, which may result in a more positive body image. Body image is an aspect of identity that affects one’s mental and physical well-being. Body image also carries into adulthood. This is an opportunity to help develop health behaviors that extend beyond the physical benefits.
What sparked your interest in studying body image?
For many years, I witnessed women in my life struggle with their body image, manifesting in negative self-talk to more extreme circumstances requiring hospitalization for anorexia. That is where my interest began. Then, working with individuals and families in health settings, I often saw the interrelation between mental and physical health. But I also noticed that we treat mental and physical health separately despite how connected they truly are. Body image is one of those factors that impacts both mental and physical health, and the integration of mental and physical health is exciting to me.
What did you learn from your time as a medical social worker and crisis responder?
I worked as a medical social worker in a skilled nursing facility after I completed my Master of Social Work degree. I conducted psychosocial assessments of our residents and was responsible for helping rehab patients go home after they completed physical therapy. It was in this role I saw how mental health problems impeded the patient’s ability to improve their physical health. Many patients were in our care after recovering from strokes or car accidents and often were dealing with depression or anxiety that needed to be treated in addition to their physical needs. I would work with patients and our integrated health professional team to identify and treat their mental health needs in addition to their physical health needs to improve their overall well-being.
I spent the last two years working as a crisis responder here in Tennessee. I maintained a 24-hour crisis phone line where I worked with families and youth who were experiencing suicidal and homicidal ideations as well as psychosis. My main responsibilities were to stabilize the crisis, assess the risk, and connect families and youth to the appropriate services, which included in-person crisis response wherever the family or youth was located, hospitalization, and community-based treatments.
What other research are you currently working on?
Currently I am completing my dissertation, which looks at perinatal mental health. I am conceptualizing a paper post-dissertation which will examine the role of body image in reproductive health.
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