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Kristina Saffran is the co-founder and executive director of Project HEAL, the largest grassroots eating disorder non-profit in the US focused on providing treatment access and recovery support. Kristina and her cofounder Liana started HEAL at 15 years old in recovery from anorexia; they now support an international community of 100,000 patients and families connected through 40 chapters worldwide. Kristina was named a Forbes 30 under 30 social entrepreneur and Facebook Community Leadership Fellow won the Scattergood 2018 Innovation in Behavioral Health Award and has been profiled in The New York Times and Fast Company. She’s spoken across the country – Health 2.0, The International Conference of Eating Disorders, The National Conference of Behavioral Health, and more – on eating disorders, recovery, and launching a successful social entrepreneurship as a teen. Kristina graduated from Harvard College with a bachelors degree in psychology in May of 2014.
Thanks for being here Kristina! What’s been the greatest learning you’ve had from running a non-profit?
The greatest learning I’ve had from running a non-profit is persistence! I’ve been running Project HEAL for 10 years and it’s something that I’m constantly working on improving. Kind of like recovery: fall down seven times, stand up eight.
What’s your favourite thing about running this program?
My favorite thing is attending our Communities of HEALing groups and seeing people in recovery supporting each other. I also love meeting our mentors and hearing about how they use their own recovery journeys to support their mentees.
You started project HEAL at 15 while recovering from anorexia. How were you able to take on such a huge task in such a time in your life?
Yes! My cofounder and I always joke that we took the traits that predisposed us to anorexia: perfectionism, anxiety, compulsivity, etc, and channeled them into a positive direction.
What main piece of advice would you give to someone struggling with eating disorders? What is something that you learned through your own struggles that you think would be helpful for others here?
1- reach out for support, 2- seek treatment (a core part of eating disorders is not feeling “sick enough,” which can be really harmful in recovery. You deserve help, 3- full recovery is the hardest thing you will ever do, but it is 100% possible and 100% worth it.
Were there ever moments where you had to put your own mental health needs ahead of the needs of the community? What was it like leading a community where the topic was so close to your own struggles?
That was definitely a worry at the beginning, but honestly, running Project HEAL has been such a positive aspect of my recovery. I think the combination of channeling my drive into something bigger than myself, and also having the responsibility to be a role model to others brought me fully into recovery. It’s awesome to see the same thing happen for our chapter leaders. And while I feel 100% recovered from my eating disorder, I still struggle with anxiety and perfectionism.
Is there anything you would suggest to teens who want to help others?
We have a number of volunteer opportunities, and are currently recruiting for mentors and group facilitators! Visit www.theprojectheal.org to learn more.
Are there any sure signs of eating disorders? How can you tell if you yourself have an eating disorder?
NEDA has some amazing resources https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/what-are-eating-disorders. In short, though, if you are in pain and distress, you should seek help.
Where do you turn for help when you have no family or friends who can support you?
This is unfortunately common, but there are great resources out there. Check out NEDAs helpline, or our Communities of HEALing program: https://www.theprojectheal.org/communities-of-healing/
What’s the greatest thing you’ve learned about yourself from your own healing?
To live in alignment with my values, to surround myself with people and experiences that energize and inspire me rather than drain me, and to be gentle with myself.
If there was something you could go back and say to your younger self before you started project HEAL knowing what you know now, what would it be?
That it will be a long and hard journey but so worth it. Nothing amazing happens overnight, without some struggles, and hard work. And finally, embrace the failures! It’s truly the only way that you learn and get better.
Could you talk about symptoms of an eating disorder that may be present in those with depression/anxiety but may not necessarily be diagnosed as an eating disorder (by the DSM)?
Specifically, I’d love to hear your thoughts on anxiety around food/eating or difficulty maintaining a regular eating schedule.
Eating disorders are highly comorbid with anxiety, depression, OCD, trauma. It sounds like what you are talking about falls under the OSFED category, which is also a serious eating disorder that warrants support and treatment https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/learn/by-eating-disorder/osfed
I have social anxiety which keeps me from participating in groups. Do not have any family or friends for support. How do I get my anxiety/depression to cool down so I can start healing.
I definitely hear that! You can apply to be notified when we start recruiting our next round of mentee applicants, which is a 1:1 experience. Our blog is a great place to start feeling less alone and more connected. https://www.theprojectheal.org/healblog/ . Also check out Recovery Record https://www.recoveryrecord.com/
For someone like myself not as experienced with ED, how can I be a better ally and help those who are struggling? What triggers should be avoided?
Great question! Try not to focus on weight/shape/food. Remind the person of the core parts of themselves that you miss (for example, I miss your smile), let them know that you will support them in getting help, offer to drive them to appointments or help them do research.
Do you know ways in which eating disorder communities could try to avoid toxicity?
It can be really hard to avoid triggers in ED recovery, because lots of things can feel like a trigger when you are struggling. Our group guidelines center around “no dumping:” everyone has to actively participate and seek feedback and solutions from other group members. We also have a specific no numbers guideline, because that is never helpful in recovery.
What’s the best way to stop yourself from feeling so disgusting after you eat?
This is a hard one, and the answer is so individual. Some things I’ve found to be helpful include: meditation, calling a friend or trusted support system, practicing CBT/ DBT skills, distracting with a good movie or book.
What’s been the greatest challenge running a non-profit?
The hardest thing for me is that entrepreneurship is all about taking calculated risks and learning from your mistakes. I used to beat myself up for mistakes, but now I’m learning to embrace them.
What was the turning point for you going from someone who suffered from anorexia to starting an organisation to helping people?
Many people suffer from things, some even get out of it and think about helping others but few actually do something as big as starting an organisation. Like I said before, I used my perfectionistic traits and channeled them into something positive. I was also so inspired by our community of 40 chapters wanting to help others in recovery.