Eating disorders among teens and adults surge during pandemic
Experts say isolation and stress are thought to facilitate this mental health disorder
Sophie Balisky, 26, says she struggled with anorexia and bulimia through most of her teens but got help three years ago and was doing great — until COVID hit and she lost her job as a flight attendant.
She found herself reverting to old coping patterns in dealing with stressful and uncertain situations.
"I was actually quite shocked, I was a bit taken aback, because I consider myself to be quite strong in my coping against my eating tendencies," said Balisky.
Advocates for those who struggle with eating disorders say the pandemic is exacerbating the problem — prompting a greater need for community supports.
Experts believe the problem is related to the stress, uncertainty and isolation that stems from the pandemic and related-restrictions and say it's not only a problem in the province but around the world.
Some eating disorder support groups in Alberta who connect with people of all ages say they have seen a steady rise in demand since the pandemic hit.
With the isolation … eating disorders really are taking hold and people are needing support more than ever.- Colleen Hauck, Calgary Silver Linings Foundation
The Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta is reporting a 5½ times increase in participants year-over-year between the period from March to the end of August.
"So a huge surge through this," said Lauren Berlinguette, executive director of the support network.
Another community-based agency that offers support to those who are struggling as well as their families, the Calgary Silver Linings Foundation, says it's experiencing a substantial increase in demand, too. The number of participants in all of its adult programs went from 37 to 64 participants, year-over-year.
"With the isolation, you know, eating disorders really are taking hold and people are needing support more than ever," said Colleen Hauck, executive director of the Calgary Silver Linings Foundation.
Dr. April Elliott, a Calgary pediatrician, works with teens suffering medical complications from eating disorders. She says it's important that people realize eating disorders are complex mental health issues that require both medical and mental health support.
She says that from 2019 to 2020, during the period of March to September, there's been a 155 per cent spike in the number of new cases, whether it's for heart issues or severe malnutrition.
"These are obviously smaller numbers of patients, but the increase is significant," said Elliott, chief of adolescent medicine at the Alberta Children's Hospital.
She says current research points to social isolation as a major factor, which she says is an unintended consequence of the COVID-related restrictions that are in place to protect public health.
"So some of the hypotheses that we all have, and it's supported by what people have written so far, is that there's lots of anxiety around the pandemic measures and the pandemic itself, you know, the need to control an environment.… [One] of the things that we can control is what we put into our bodies," said Elliott.
Balisky, who now volunteers at Silver Linings, says she contacted her therapist and wrote about it in a blog — because she says isolation and secrecy help this disorder thrive.
"I knew that if I felt this way and some of my other recovery friends felt this way, it must be 10 times worse for the people who are really in the depths of their eating disorder," said Balisky.
COVID-impact on services
Alberta Health Services operates an eating disorder treatment program for teens and adults in Edmonton and Calgary.
AHS had to reduce some of its inpatient and outpatient programs due to COVID-19.
In Edmonton, AHS is still able to offer 12 designated beds at the University of Alberta Hospital, but it has had to limit the number of people attending an intensive day program.
In Calgary, the Foothills normally provides four to six designated treatment beds, but currently there are none. Two are scheduled to reopen in January.
However, a spokesman for AHS says anyone suffering acute medical or mental health problems related to an eating disorder can still be admitted through another unit at the hospital.
Wait times in Calgary for those needing an assessment to enter treatment are longer now than they were pre-pandemic.
Currently, there are 78 people on the wait list in Calgary.
For adolescents under 21, the average wait time is 12.7 weeks — compared with 5.4 weeks before the pandemic.
For adults over 21, the average wait time is about 5½ weeks — compared with one week prior to the pandemic.
A spokesperson for AHS says wait times also tend to grow around Christmas time.
Still, the wait times and reduction of beds at the Foothills have impacted the need for community support programs, according to Hauck.
"Treatment for eating disorders in Alberta has always been less than ideal. There is a lack of resources for the community. But certainly since COVID has hit, the access to service has decreased even more, unfortunately. So there is a real need for both inpatient hospital care as well as community care, Hauck said.
Hauck says that long term, Silver Linings would like to build a facility that would provide a residential program for people who may need more intensive support than a weekly therapist or support group, as is found in other provinces. She says they are at the conversation level with both the provincial government and other partners.
Both Hauck and Berlinguette say they have started to offer more support groups, which have also moved online, in order to keep up with demand.
"If the stress associated with the pandemic has encouraged more people to come forward and look for support or treatment, we can guess there's still people that are on their own with this … and we'll just do our best to adapt as things change," said Berlinguette.
If you, your child or someone you know may need help with an eating disorder, help is available.
Speak to your family doctor or connect with a local AHS Addiction and Mental Health clinic to speak to a counsellor. For services or support near you, call the AHS Mental Health Helpline at 1-877-303-2642.
Or call the National Eating Disorder Information Centre help line 1-866-NEDIC-20 or go to nedic.ca/contact
- A previous version of this article misstated wait time stats and has since been updated.Jul 18, 2021 4:01 PM MT