Kyle T. Ganson ’20PhD is an Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. A licensed clinical social worker (US) and registered social worker (Canada) with over 10 years post-master’s clinical experience, Ganson has focused his clinical work, research, and teaching on serving adolescents and adults, with a particular interest in the treatment of eating disorders. As part of his studies at Simmons, he created the course “Social Work Assessment and Treatment of Eating Disorders,” to be taught by Adjunct Erin Schaefer in Spring 2024. We spoke to Ganson about his doctoral experience at Simmons and the inspiration behind the course.
Kyle Ganson was doing clinical work with adolescents struggling with depression, anxiety, and trauma, when he noticed particular trends: in many cases, depressed kids either didn’t eat much, or used food as a coping mechanism. “I was interested in that pattern,” says Ganson, who held a weekly adolescent eating disorders support group at the Multi-Service Eating Disorders Association (MEDA) in Newton, MA.
Although body changes are common among adolescents, Ganson noted that few people discuss how these changes affect young men. “Not one boy came to those groups in the two years I facilitated it, it was all adolescent girls,” he recalls. “I worked at a residential program for women with eating disorders. The focus was on females, and among staff I was the only male. The field is dominated by female clinicians and clients.”
He became interested in the complexities and nuances of working with clients with eating disorders, particularly boys, and their families. “The research we do on men is muscularity-oriented,” says Ganson. “This [focus on gaining lean muscle mass] is seen as more socially acceptable than a young girl who is too thin or purging via vomiting. Meanwhile, boys and men go to the gym, take supplements, and engage in unique and at times extreme dietary practices to gain muscle. They may be working hard to improve at their sport and get a scholarship, which can perpetuate problematic behaviors.”
Developing a course at Simmons
For his PhD in Social Work, Ganson knew he wanted to focus his research on eating disorders, as well as muscle dysmorphia — a preoccupation with lacking muscle tone, regardless of one’s objective appearance — which is largely gender-specific. When there were no courses focused on the topic, he decided to create his own. Created under the guidance of then-Professor and Director Melinda Gushwa and Professor Kristie Thomas, the course, “Social Work Assessment and Treatment of Eating Disorders,” addresses the experiences of males, females, and non-binary and trans individuals with eating disorders. “Gender is an important variable around eating disorders and body image,” says Ganson. “Each of the communities across the gender spectrum has their own unique eating disorder and body image experience. We need to understand the relevant cultural context to understand why it presents in different ways.”
Ganson dismantles the stereotype that eating disorders affect only young, white, affluent females. Even the assumed presentation of eating disorders is a harmful stereotype. “Most people who have eating disorders don’t look like they have eating disorders,” says Ganson. “We often think of anorexia first, but that is the least common type of eating disorder. Binge eating disorder is most common, especially among males. And those suffering likely present in a body that appears ‘normal.’”
The idea of thinness being a marker of an eating disorder is problematic, especially for males, who often start at a higher weight and may not experience as much weight loss, even when the condition is severe. “Males generally have more muscle mass, and their bone density is higher,” notes Ganson. “They could have severe symptoms, but it isn’t recognized by their parents or health professionals because they don’t look like someone who has an eating disorder.” Even when a person isn’t underweight, eating disorder behaviors, like binge eating, purging, or restricting, can impact heart rate and decrease resistance to other health issues.
Though challenging, Ganson finds the research process rewarding. “When I do the research, I’m able to talk about different behaviors and body image processes, and give voice to empirically documented behaviors. This is a form of empowerment for people who experience these problems. If we don’t give them a voice, [their experience] doesn’t trickle down to best practices. I’m trying to add to the history and literature about these conditions, adding the experiences of men and transgender people.”
The course is offered at Simmons for undergraduate students, of special interest to those in Social Work, Nutrition, and Nursing. While Ganson was unable to teach the course he created during his time as an adjunct at Simmons, he now teaches it at the University of Toronto. In addition to teaching, Ganson runs a small private practice on the side. “That’s at the root of the work I’ve done,” he says. “Empowering people to make a change in their lives and address behaviors they see as problematic — it’s altruistic and humbling. To see people flourish is very rewarding.”
Choosing the Simmons PhD program
Ganson landed at Simmons after spending time in the field and teaching as an adjunct professor. “I was drawn to the clinical focus of the PhD at Simmons,” says Ganson. “It’s a robust program that also gave me the ability to do my own research. The program was transformative, giving me a lot of skills around data analysis and teaching theory. I’m thankful that Simmons offered a pedagogy class [HPED 531 OL: Teaching Methodologies, Course Design, and Assessment]. As a cohort, we felt we could follow topics of interest to us, with mentorship from the faculty. Simmons faculty encouraged us to find people in our field to collaborate with, beyond the University. Without that encouragement to seek mentorship, I don’t think I would be in the position I have now. I’m doing research with people whose papers I read during my studies. The faculty at Simmons foster a growth mindset and opportunities for lifelong learning.”
Ganson considers himself an atypical social work student. “My bachelor’s education is in photography. I wasn’t a psychology, sociology, or social work major,” he says. “People come to social work from all walks of life. My experience is an example of how you can make social work what you want it to be.” He encourages his students to consider their social work identity, and how they want to engage in the field. “I ask them to think about who they are and what is unique to them. How do you bring your skills and your independent experience to your practice? As social workers, we foster and develop those connections to interact with people in a positive and effective way.”