In November, 1991, The Renfrew Center Foundation convened its first national conference in Philadelphia with 150 in attendance. Many of the attendees were new to the field and had been treating eating disorders for only a few years.
The majority were clinicians in private practice, challenged by their patients’ complicated medical, psychological and social issues. The conference attendees were not only seeking knowledge and skill but were also looking for a place to openly share ideas and find support as they struggled to do highly specialized and demanding clinical work. An additional challenge was the growing realization that the culture was playing a large part in the increased incidence of eating disorders. Informed by the work of Carol Gilligan and the Stone Center, there was a great deal of discussion about the possibility that women might have different therapeutic needs than men, particularly those with eating disorders.
At the time of the first conference, The Renfrew Center had been open for 5 years, experimenting with many types of group therapy and the healing power of community. Gradually, these relational approaches cultivated in our clinical work with women became the foundation for our educational efforts.
The spirit and focus of the conference has purposefully encompassed and reflected the feminist values of collaboration, connection and mutually respectful relationships. We have welcomed speakers such as Carol Gilligan, Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Weiner, Arianna Huffington, Monica Lewinsky, and Roxane Gay, who have addressed eating disorders through the lens of gender, as well as men like Patrick J. Kennedy, an advocate for reducing the stigma of mental illness. Of equal importance, we have featured leaders in the field providing treatment, doing research and embarking on new theories, enriching the audience with their expertise. Younger, less experienced professionals have also been encouraged to share their work. Over the past several years, the conference has focused on the integration of this relational tradition with other emerging, empirically informed treatments and the newest advancements in neuroscience. In 2013, The Renfrew Center Unified Treatment Model for Eating Disorders®, an evidence-based emotion focused therapy was launched. This unique model has been featured on the Conference program since then.
Many who have presented at the conference have been pioneers in rethinking and reshaping clinical theory and practice. Some have become mentors and role models for the next generation of psychologists, social workers, dietitians, physicians, and nurses. What began almost 30 years ago as an important training conference has extended its scope and its influence to become a venue for sharing and rejuvenating to more than 600 mental health professionals each year. The goal of the conference continues to be a gathering which provides cutting edge ideas and fresh voices in a stimulating, nurturing environment.