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Eating disorder issues worsened during pandemic

The first week of February is Eating Disorders Awareness week, a time to reflect on the mental and physical health struggles of an estimated 2.7 million Canadians. In line with the  National Eating Disorder Information Centre, the Woolwich Counselling Centre has seen an increase in eating disorders since the pandemic began.

“We’ve seen a rise in people accessing our services with eating disorders. I know it’s not just the youth experiencing eating disorders and relapses, it’s all ages,” said Sue Martell, a therapist at Woolwich Counselling Centre.

Like other counselling services, WCC has a long waitlist of people looking for help or treatment.

“In the Kitchener-Waterloo area, there is a huge waitlist, so to get that diagnosed eating disorder is taking a lot longer. There’s going to be a lot of individuals that are struggling with the disorder or an actual eating disorder but aren’t able to get that diagnosis or that support.”

Aryel Maharaj, the outreach, and education coordinator at the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, has also seen an increase in people accessing their services for eating disorders or symptoms their waiting to get diagnosed.

“In Ontario, for instance, we’ve seen a large increase in both emergency room visits and hospitalizations – a 66 per cent increase in ER visits compared to pre-COVID, and a 37 per cent increase in risk of hospitalization. All of that data is really specific to youth – that’s information from hospitals like SickKids. While I think the youth picture is really worrying and where we’re seeing the largest change in risk is the structure changing, the way schools are kind of being yo-yoed in front of kids. The way in which their eating and puberty development are already going haywire during this period, all this pandemic’s done I think is exacerbated that,” said Maharaj.

“From the helpline side we get to talk to clients as young as 7 and as old as 77 or 80, we’ve seen a 59 per cent increase in people calling and chatting with us and what’s really worrying on my end from a data perspective is that 2021 has actually been busier than 2020.”

Both agencies noted the increase in eating disorders is in all age groups but notably children have had many changes to their eating schedules.

“When you compare pre-pandemic to where we are in the pandemic, we have a 43 per cent increase in the amount of people calling and chatting in with us,” said Maharaj.

He noted the highest percentage of callers is the 11- to 19-year-old age group.

“I think in most cases, especially for children, the structure of school, of having breakfast, have recess with snack, having lunch, having an afternoon snack and after school eating that really helps in the initial formation of their own body cues.”

Maharaj noted the pandemic has shifted many people’s eating patterns and is cautioning about emerging eating disorders coming out of the pandemic.

“All the mental health conditions we might be left with after all of the COVID related things are through are really things were trying to be mindful of and plan for. Eating disorders, the way we deal with them was already woefully inadequate before the pandemic; waiting lists and not a lot of specialists who are able to provide care, not a lot of accessible support options and in some ways the pandemics helped in the way in which virtual care has become more and more around for people. A rural community can access a group in Toronto or a group in Ottawa.”

Maharaj and Martell both noticed there is no one type of eating disorder on the rise, it’s all of them and some people are going left undiagnosed. Maharaj noted it’s more of a scale between how bad someone is doing from their eating disorder symptoms and how easily are they able to live normally with it.

“The pandemic has changed our perspective of how a disorder manifests and that’s been important,” said Maharaj.

The reduction of movement and restrictions in activity has most likely caused some people’s eating disorders to change, added Martell.

WCC and NEDIC are hosting an online workshop titled “Understanding and Preventing Eating Disorders” on February 16. And a virtual youth workshop entitled “Navigating Society’s Pressures Around Eating, Exercise, and Health” on February 28. More information on local resources can be found on WCC’s website.

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