Alsana CEO Jennifer Steiner: “Let’s consider intelligence, kindness, and leadership as forms of beauty”

From the societal perspective, let’s be real with who we are, and let’s redefine what “beauty” is. In my opinion, beauty’s physical manifestation is only a small aspect of what beauty truly is. I want to empower our clients to feel comfortable in their own skin, to embrace the body they are in; and to […]

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From the societal perspective, let’s be real with who we are, and let’s redefine what “beauty” is. In my opinion, beauty’s physical manifestation is only a small aspect of what beauty truly is. I want to empower our clients to feel comfortable in their own skin, to embrace the body they are in; and to consider intelligence, kindness, and leadership as forms of beauty. If we redefine how society tells us we should look, act and think, we will help cure thousands of men and women who are struggling.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jennifer Steiner, Chief Executive Officer of Alsana. Jennifer has a history of excellence in healthcare delivery and a proven record of success. During the last decade, Jennifer has actively been creating positive change in mental health on a national scale. She is driven to improve the standard of care in mental health and eating disorder treatment through impeccable clinical quality, accountability, and innovative care delivery models. Jennifer holds an MBA from the University of Michigan’s Stephen M. Ross School of Business and earned her undergraduate degree in liberal arts from Colorado College. She lives with her husband and three children, and enjoys running marathons, reading and being outdoors. Jennifer is also an ardent supporter of “Lead like a Chiq,” a movement she founded that promotes the power of authentically female leadership.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Spending the majority of my career in health care services, I have a passion for serving people who are in a vulnerable stage of their lives. Most of us have experienced a time in our lives when we, or a family member, have struggled with a health condition where we had to rely on medical professionals to survive, and it’s a terrifying experience. For me, it’s a tremendous honor to be able to serve those in that kind of situation. Our company, Alsana, is a family of eating disorder treatment programs with an integrated and holistic treatment approach to healing. Alongside my team of experts, we created the Adaptive Care Model™ which serves each client through a five-point approach: psychological, medical, nutritional, movement and relational. As the only model of its kind in the industry, we’ve integrated all aspects of a client’s wellness. Why this approach? I’ve seen the way women and men struggle with their own body image, and many eating disorders come with a variety of co-dependency issues. An eating disorder is rarely an isolated issue, which is why it should not be treated from a single-dimensional perspective. There is a tremendous amount of pressure from how society defines “beauty,” or how fad diets and social media images influence the way we look. While eating disorders in 2019 may look different than they did 10–20 years ago, they usually stem from some source of suffering. Our goal is to find the root of that suffering and provide support to all aspects of the human mind, body, and spirit. We’re in the business of healing the entire body, not just one part.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

I believe that there is a stigma about mental illness because it is less understood than physical health conditions. There has been less attention, credibility, funding, and research directed to mental health issues. Mental health has been decoupled from physical health and isolated as a periphery and questionable health care concern. Culturally, there has often been more judgment on mental health than physical health issues and changing all of these dynamics is no small feat. Not only do we need to shift public perception about the importance and validity of mental health issues, but we also need to change the way our health care system integrates these conditions into our care delivery models. The prevalence of eating disorders is astounding and is very underserviced. The slow progress can be frustrating, but I don’t want the frustration to slow our progress or impair our ability to make these crucial changes. I believe that it can be done.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), up to 2 percent of females and up to 0.3 percent of males will develop anorexia in their lifetime. That means, 65,650 females and 9,847 males have eating disorders in the United States alone. This is compared to 4.6 percent of females (150,996 in the US) and 0.5 percent of males (16,412 in the US) who will develop bulimia in their lifetime. Anorexia and Bulimia are just two common types of eating disorders, but there are many more forms, including Orthorexia which is an obsession with healthy eating and exercise.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I believe that Alsana is working to de-stigmatize mental wellness in several ways. First, we support research and advocacy to elevate understanding and public awareness of the severity of mental health concerns, specifically eating disorders. We provide education to our clients and their loved ones through webinars, free support groups and a helpline. The demystification and data-supported insight into why someone might develop an eating disorder bring much-needed light to these issues.

Second, we have invested a significant amount of time and resources in the development of our Alsana Adaptive Care Model™ — the only model of its kind in the eating disorder industry, which focuses on healing clients from a five-point wellness model approach: psychological, medical, nutritional, movement and relational. Alsana’s leading voice on the critical nature of all of these aspects of wellness is certainly contributing to a shift in the way we think about mental health and wellness.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

Oh yes, we have a wonderful story! With the birth of “Alsana” as a new and different kind of eating disorder provider, I was inspired by an integrated wellness approach to healing. The name Alsana means “total health,” which is why we choose to treat the whole person instead of just one part. I didn’t want a care delivery model that was biased towards just a medical approach or just a therapeutic approach. Instead, I envisioned a care model that was truly representative of the entire client healing experience and served intrinsically in our Alsana programs. I sought out the most respected clinical and medical leaders in the eating disorder industry to come to a table and “with a white sheet of paper.” Together, we designed the first integrated eating disorder treatment approach of its kind. We had psychiatry, internal medicine, nursing, psychology, nutrition, exercise physiology and spirituality represented at that table. I am so proud of the beautiful, resilient, innovative care model that was created out of that collaborative effort.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

From the governmental perspective, the biggest thing that we can all do to support the improvement of mental illness in our country is to advocate for appropriate health care coverage of these conditions. The Accountable Care Act was a big step in the right direction. And, we have a long way to go to ensure that everyone who needs care gets access to the right kind of care. There is nothing more devastating to me than witnessing cases where clients who so desperately need care cannot access it.

Funding for eating disorder research remains relatively low. A recent funding report by the US National Institute of Mental Health revealed that, across all psychiatric conditions, funding for eating disorder research was the most discrepant from the burden of illness they represent. In 2015, the volume of federal support for eating disorder research equated to approximately US$0.73 per affected individual. In contrast, autism research was supported at a rate of US$58.65 per affected individual, and schizophrenia research at a rate of US$86.97 per affected individual.

From the individual perspective, we can be more understanding of the suffering and control factors that play into eating disorders. An eating disorder is a form of self-recognition of a problem and the need to control it. Some of our clients have developed eating disorders as a method to take their life into their own hands — which is a huge display of bravery and assertion. We, at Alsana, want to give them better tools to fight the cause of disorders and co-dependency issues. For those who have experienced or are currently suffering from an eating disorder, we commend your strength to seek help and share your story. Several of our medical practitioners have also suffered from eating disorders, which evokes a new level of empathy for our clients.

From the societal perspective, let’s be real with who we are, and let’s redefine what “beauty” is. In my opinion, beauty’s physical manifestation is only a small aspect of what beauty truly is. I want to empower our clients to feel comfortable in their own skin, to embrace the body they are in; and to consider intelligence, kindness, and leadership as forms of beauty. If we redefine how society tells us we should look, act and think, we will help cure thousands of men and women who are struggling.

What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Family — My family is my core reason for being. They are the highest rung on my values ladder. I am always checking to ensure that my choices, time and energy are aligned to match the importance of my family in my life.

Passion — Passion is the thing that puts a fire in our bellies. I ensure that my life is filled with things that I feel passionate about. At this point in my life, it is building this remarkable company filled with passionate and driven people that keeps my passion alive.

Meditation and Reflection — I’ve learned over the years that slowing down and finding stillness is invaluable (particularly for someone like me who is wired for action!) However, quiet and self-insight helps me to stay clear, to learn and to find my inner-wisdom.

Therapy — I think that everyone can find value in going to therapy. Therapy has helped me to better understand myself and why I feel the way I do about things. It’s provided me with a depth of understanding that I would never have had without it.

Physical health — I am very passionate about the interconnectedness of physical and mental health. I play close attention to the impact that every part of my life has on the health of my body.

Sleep — I had to call this one out! Sleep has such a significant impact on our wellness (both physically and mentally). I try to practice sleep hygiene daily to ensure that my body and mind get the rest I need.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

The books I love that inspire me to be a mental health champion are mostly those that tell their story in a raw way:

● Jennifer Schaefer — Life without ED (an oldie but a goodie and probably the most meaningful to our ED community)

● Kiera Van Gelder — Buddha and the Borderline (this was the first mental health type book I ever read!)

● Brene’ Brown — The gifts of imperfection and Power of vulnerability (While she doesn’t necessarily talk about mental illness, she lays out the challenges in her life in a real and meaningful way. I pretty much love anything she pens but especially these two!)

I am awful at listening to podcasts! But here are a few that have been recommended to me or I have listened to from time to time over the years:

● The Recovery Warrior Show

● The Eating Disorder Recovery Podcast

● The Mental Illness Happy Hour

● Anxiety Slayer

● Mentally Yours

● The Struggle Bus

Resources and advocates:

● Alliance for Eating Disorders (the founder Johanna Kandel, is one of the most passionate humans in the industry, she is also the author of Life Beyond Your Eating Disorder and played a large roll in getting the Anna Westin act passed)


● Project Heal

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