Rita DeBate, PhD
Education & History
Came to USF
BS, Psychology SUNY Geneseo, 1985
MPH, University of South Carolina, 1992
PhD, University of South Carolina, 1995
Secondary Prevention of Eating Disorders
Dr. DeBate is a tenured Professor, Past President of the American Academy of Health Behavior, and Director of the Center for Transdisciplinary Research in College Health & Well-Being in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida (USF). She is an accomplished National Institutes of Health (NIH) researcher focusing on mental health/eating disorders and college student health and well-being. Dr. DeBate has earned Fellow designation in the American Academy of Health Behavior and the Academy of Eating Disorders, and the Eating Disorder Research Society. Moreover, her innovative practice-based research has earned her the following national awards: 2018 Active Minds Healthy Campus Award; 2019 American College Health Association Best Practices in College Health Award, 2019 NASPA Excellence Award Athletics, Recreation, Counseling, Health, Wellness, and Related; 2019 Journal of the American College Health Association Weiss Writing Award; 2021 NASPA Research Award.
Dr. DeBate’s research is theoretically-and evidence-informed and guided by both qualitative and quantitative research methodologies. Dr. DeBate has over 100 peer-reviewed journal articles and 6 book chapters. She has been the Principal Investigator (PI) of 4 NIH funded research studies on secondary prevention of eating disorders and has collaborated as a co-investigator on 1 USDHHS and 3 additional NIH funded studies. She has presented her research both nationally and internationally and has consistently been called upon as a consultant.
The following provides a summary of each area of research:
Mental Health and Eating Disorders
Research and scholarship on mental health and eating disorders have almost exclusively focused on a) secondary prevention of eating disorders; b) self-esteem, body image, body size satisfaction; and c) male mental health literacy.
Secondary Prevention of Eating Disorders
Dr. DeBate was the PI on several NIH funded research studies focusing on secondary prevention of eating disorders. With her collaborator, Dr. Severson, Senior Scientist at the Oregon Research Institute, they engaged in a long line of research related to early identification of disordered eating behaviors via oral health providers. More specifically, this line of research focuses on increasing the capacity of oral healthcare providers (OHPs, i.e., dentists and dental hygienists) to identify oral signs of disordered eating behaviors, communicating findings to the patient, providing patient-specific oral health care, and referring the patient for treatment. Research in this area acts to bridge oral, physical, and mental health, and has gained national and international attention, through both publications and conference presentations, evidence again of a strong, sustained professional reputation. Further evidence of expertise has been demonstrated by her continuous funding, in addition to requests to share her expertise on the oral/systemic nature of secondary prevention of eating disorders in two book chapters in the following public health and dentistry textbooks, A Public Health Perspective of Women’s Mental Health and Evidence-Based Women’s Oral Health.
The most recent NIH funded grant (1RC1DE020274) enabled the translation of her previous NIH funded research in the development and evaluation of a web-based interactive training program for OHPs. Their research has determined that OHPs: a) perceive they have a role in secondary prevention of disordered eating behaviors; b) are interested in learning knowledge and skills to identify oral signs of disordered eating behaviors; and c) can be trained to identify oral signs of disordered eating behaviors, provide oral treatment, and refer patients for mental health and nutrition consultation/treatment. As part of this NIH study, a prospective group-randomized controlled trial involving 27 dental and dental hygiene classes from 12 accredited oral health education programs in the U.S. was implemented to assess the efficacy of the EAT web-based training program on attitudes, knowledge, self-efficacy, and skills related to the secondary prevention of disordered eating behaviors. Mixed-model analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) indicated large improvements among students in the Intervention group on all six outcomes of interest.
Self-Esteem, Body Image, Body Size Satisfaction
Research in this area involves the examination of the effects of sport-based positive youth development programs on self-esteem, body image, and body size satisfaction. Dr. DeBate has been fortunate in that she has been able to collaborate with a national sport-based positive youth development program called Girls on the Run to implement this line of research. Girls on the Run is a physical activity-based positive youth development program for 3rd-5th grade girls that uses running as a vehicle for teaching life skills and enhancing social, psychological, and physical health outcomes. Through this research, consistent improvements among Girls on the Run program, participants were observed regarding self-esteem, body image, commitment to physical activity, and physical activity frequency. Dr. DeBate’s research with positive youth development also extended with her role as a Co-Investigator (PI: Buhi) on a grant from the Office of Adolescent Health (OAH) to evaluate the Teen Outreach Program (TOP), a positive youth development program for 9th grade students to prevent unwanted pregnancies. In addition to positive youth development, this research program also incorporates her knowledge and expertise with the RE-AIM evaluation framework.
Male Mental Health Literacy
As part of this program of study, Dr. DeBate implemented a large practice-based study of male college students applying social marketing theory and mixed research methodologies. The purpose of this research program of study was to apply social marketing theory to address mental health literacy among male undergraduate students to improve mental health literacy and improve help-seeking behaviors. This line of research employed a social marketing framework to address the unique needs of male undergraduate students to increase their MHL and subsequent help-seeking behaviors. Using a series of mixed methodologies including surveys, key informant interviews, and focus groups, social marketing theory was applied to identify the “marketing mix” which served as the foundation to intervention development. As applied to this line of research, the social marketing mix includes increasing professional help-seeking behaviors (product) by improving awareness of physical signs and symptoms (promotion) in health care centers and online (place) while reducing stigma, including self-stigma and self-confidence to seek help, and masculine norms (price). Translation of the marketing mix into a social marketing intervention resulted in the development, implementation, and evaluation of the “Male Restroom Project.” More specifically, based on the findings from this study, tailoring mental health literacy communications for college males should focus on physical signs and symptoms in addition to projecting a “sense of control” over the issue. For example, the marketing mix revealed that males identified with mental health issues via physical health symptoms and reflective of masculinity ideals, wanted to be able to “take care of the issue” themselves. Subsequently, a set of four social marketing campaigns was developed with the goal of improving mental health literacy through associating mental health issues with physical signs and symptoms. Additionally, four social marketing campaigns were developed with the behavioral call to action consisting of engaging in a campus sponsored online therapy program. All marketing campaigns underwent formative assessments to obtain feedback from male college students to ensure comprehension, attention, relatability, compatibility. To address the self-stigma and social stigma, the campaigns were placed on the back of all bathroom stall doors in the university recreation center’s male restrooms. This served as a private place for the males to review the material and scan the QR code to get information on the online therapy program.
College Student Health & Well-Being
Approximately 5 years ago, Dr. DeBate created the Center for Transdisciplinary Research in College Student Health & Well-being. As an innovative multidisciplinary academic and community partnership, the mission of the research center is to “bridge the gap between and among professional disciplines to create new paradigms for college health, well-being and success.” To that end, she and her team have engaged in multiple practice-based research studies focusing on multiple areas of college student health including mental health/eating disorders, food insecurity, tobacco, sexual health, and student persistence/success. Most recently, a longitudinal study (2 semesters with 4 time points) was implemented during the Covid-19 pandemic that assessed college student psychological distress, flourishing, resiliency, Covid-19 related behaviors, and adaptation to college.
Dr. DeBate also teaches several courses in the College of Public Health including, Introduction to Epidemiology in London (USF in London Study Abroad), Core Concepts in Health and Wellness Coaching, Advanced Concepts in Wellness Coaching, Population Assessment, Public Health In Pharmacy, and is actively taking Doctoral students who are interested in her research and practice areas.