When the COVID pandemic hit the number of people experiencing eating disorders in Canada has notably gone up, many of those facing the difficulty of not only dealing with new restrictions but also having trouble finding help.
Aryel Marahaj, the Outreach and Education Coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Center (NEDIC) in Toronto, said they have noticed a significant increase in eating disorders with the start of the pandemic.
“We were over 70 per cent busier on the number of people reaching out in 2020 comparing to 2019,” he said.
Judging from NEDIC records there is a similar rate in people who are having relapses during the pandemic and those who are experiencing it for the first time, Marahaj said.
In particular, there is a 104 per cent increase in the number of youth ages 11 to 19, reaching out as well as a 90 per cent surge in binge eating in 2020, he said.
“So those are three big changes that we’ve noticed in the demand for our services much of which I think can be attributed to the pandemic,” he said.
Marahaj said many people want to blame lockdown measures solely on it but it is not the case.
Findings from the last Canadian Community Health Survey showed that in 2012 more than 113,000 people ages 15 and older were experiencing an eating disorder.
“I really want people to know that people with eating disorders were struggling a lot before COVID even happen in the first place,” Marahaj said.
“So even our hospital programs wait lists were already six months to a year, sometimes even longer than that before the pandemic,” he said.
But transaction to virtual care and changes in treatment program services due to the pandemic made the eating disorders issue even more complicated, Marahaj said.
“It was already kind of a precarious situation and COVID just made a big hole and it was really easy to fall into it,” Marahaj said, adding there are people who are more at risk of developing an eating disorder.
These are people who experience food insecurity having trouble getting food, he said.
“During the pandemic, we see more Canadians than ever are using food banks and stuff like that,” Maharaj said.
Members of the LGBTQ community are also at higher risk because of the need to conform to a societal expectation and fear of the way they’re gonna get treated about it, he said.
“We really need to work to create a more inclusive society where folks can feel accepted, regardless of whatever body they live in,” Marahaj said.
He said people, who are in an aesthetic sport where there are certain standards of how the body should look like and a lot of judgment for an appearance like swimming, dancing, skating, gymnastics, are more at risk as well.
Cheyenne Lindsay, a 22-year-old nursing student from Edmonton, said she developed an eating disorder at the age of 18 because of her competitiveness as a swimmer.
Lindsay said she quit swimming after entering university but exhausted herself in the gym and limited her daily calorie intake to an unhealthy degree.
“At first, it was so much praise,” Lindsay said. “You’re eating so healthy, you look so great, you’ve lost some weight, and it really feeds the cycle in your head. You’re like, wow, I’ve never been noticed before and suddenly everybody’s impressed with me.”
She said she ended up in the hospital and going through therapy for several months but when COVID started she had to self-isolate, which affected her mental state.
“I could only go for walks every day because nothing was open,” Lindsay said. “It was a very difficult time for me.”
But her struggles didn’t end there, she said. It was difficult for her to find a dietician and although now she has one, she is still actively looking for a psychologist.
“Unfortunately, still having no luck in the psychology department,” Lindsay said. “There are very few specialized eating disorder psychologists, to begin with, and then you add the fact that so many people are struggling during quarantine that none of them are able to take new patients right now.”
Amanda Lambert, a founder of the fitness-based therapy company Strong Minds that helps people to recover mentally and physically, said she has been going through an eating disorder and understands the hardships of her clients very well.
“The beautiful thing about my company is that I try to find funding for all of my clients, so many clients that I support actually don’t pay out of pocket,” Lambert said. “A lot of them right now are younger than 18 which is one of the biggest reasons why I’m able to find funding but as soon as someone turns 18 the funding options aren’t available and it’s really challenging.”
She said she’s extremely upset that support from the government can’t be applied to individuals older than 18 because many of her clients can’t pay for treatment.
Lambert said there aren’t enough services for people with mental health in general, especially in small cities like hers which is Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
“I brought to the attention to one of the committees that we need to do something in regards to eating disorders, that there needs to be more services,” she said.
Lambert believes the funding for mental health has to be distributed equally.
“I find that a lot of funding goes into addictions,” she said. “But a lot of funding doesn’t go into eating disorders, even though eating disorders have a very high mortality rate.”
Canadian Mental Health Association records showed that eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, with 10-20 per cent eventually dying from complications.
There also needs to be many more eating disorder specialists, Lambert said.
“There are tons of addiction counselors but if you have an eating disorder, it’s like impossible to get help,” she said.
To decrease eating disorder cases Marahaj said living standards must be significantly improved for many people.
“I think we have to look as a society of not just dealing with stress at an individual level,” he said. “Because it’s not fair to them that we put all the blame on like you just have to get better at dealing with your stress when there are some systemic issues at play.”
Marahaj said stress will increase if there are impediments in accessing services, medical care, and good food. And that should be considered holistically when designing and developing infrastructure.
“Thinking about mental health needs to be involved in every decision that we make including when we’re building new transit, when we’re building affordable housing, when we’re dealing with grocery stores and their prices, and increasing availability and quality of food for people,” he said.
Marahaj said healing takes time and it can be different for everyone but also that everyone is able to recover.
“So, please, reach out, and know that you can do it, that there are people like us who are in your corner, we’re advocating for you who want to see you live the life however you want to live it,” he said. “Let’s give ourselves time and space because it’s okay to be struggling right now.”