CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

November 8, 2001 Psychologist Melissa Lieberman wins gold medal



Melissa Lieberman

Melissa Lieberman

by Barbara Black

Melissa Lieberman is the recipient of the 2001 Governor-General’s Gold Medal, which goes to the outstanding graduate student at fall convocation.

She earned her doctorate in psychology, in association with Concordia’s Centre for Research in Human Development. Her thesis focused on adolescent girls and eating disorders.

A native of Toronto, Lieberman began her life at Concordia in September 1993. She spent two years completing a master’s degree under the supervision of Anna-Beth Doyle, and then began her PhD under the supervision of the late Donna White.

“She was a wonderful, supportive, intelligent supervisor and role model who had a significant impact on my academic development,” Lieberman recalled in an e-mail interview.

After Professor White died in 1999, Lieberman was supervised by William Bukowski at Concordia and Lise Gauvin at the Université de Montréal. She finished her PhD in September 2000, and did a one-year post-doctoral fellowship at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children in the area of eating disorders under the supervision of Dr. Gail McVey.

“I was attracted to the program at Concordia because of the exciting research opportunities and clinical training that they offered. Being affiliated with the Centre for Research in Human Development provided me with the resources I needed to pursue my research interests, and I worked with some great mentors at Concordia.”

In the glowing recommendation for her gold medal, Professor Anna-Beth Doyle, the PhD program director in Psychology, called Lieberman “a most outstanding scholar.”

“When she began her master’s studies at Concordia, Dr. Lieberman was the top applicant to the program, standing out among more than 100 others, and meriting a J.W. McConnell Graduate Fellowship.

“For her doctoral studies, she was awarded fellowships from all three of the federal and provincial agencies to which she applied,” Doyle said.

Friends play a crucial role

Girls who are teased about their weight and appearance, and rely to a tremendous degree on what their friends think of them for their own self-worth, are more vulnerable to the development of disordered eating, according to Melissa Lieberman’s research.

“In general, findings from my study suggest that peer relations play an important role in the development of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating,” she said in an e-mail interview.

Reducing peer pressure is not an easy task in the closed world of adolescence, but greater effort could be made to reduce pressure in the schools — zero tolerance for teasing, no diets allowed at school, and a curriculum that promotes positive self-esteem and body esteem. Peers could be turned from ridicule and bullying to forming support groups to help one another.

“The earlier the prevention begins, the more effective it will be,” Lieberman said.

She is now in supervised practice as a psychologist in the Eating Disorders Program at the Children’s Hospital of Hamilton Health Sciences, on the campus of McMaster University, where many of her patients are brought in by their concerned parents.

“Working with girls who have eating disorders is very challenging, primarily because many of them do not want to get better.”

She and her colleagues take one of two approaches, depending on the circumstances. One is to put the care back into the parents’ hands, with the support of the medical team, until the child is stable enough nutritionally to make her own choices and decisions.

The other approach is to work with the child at the stage that she is at, based on an accepted model. “For example, if the child denies that they have an eating disorder, our work is focused on helping the child to accept that she is sick. We do not force change until the child accepts that she has an eating disorder and decides that she is ready to do something to overcome it.”

Recovery is a long process and difficult for both the child and the family, Lieberman said.

“Restoring health and nutrition is always a primary goal due to the longer-term effects on the child’s growth and development. Once the child is better nutritionally, we focus on some of the underlying issues that may have contributed to the development of the eating disorder.”

There’s more research to be done on this subject, she said. “We know more now than we did 15 to 20 years ago, but there is a big gap in research with younger populations. We need to continue doing research with children and adolescents to discover which treatments work best.”

As an indication of how widespread the problem is, the government of Ontario recently put $7 million into the treatment of eating disorders in Ontario due to the increased need for services.

Melissa Lieberman achieved at the highest level in her graduate courses, obtaining a final GPA of 4.19 while simultaneously coping with the heavy demands of the accredited doctoral program in clinical psychology. Unfortunately, the demands of her work Eating Disorders Program at the Children’s Hospital of Hamilton Health Sciences make it impossible for Dr. Lieberman to attend convocation on Nov. 16 in Montreal, but she’ll be with us in spirit.