Pandemic sees increase in eating disorders with few supports available in Cambridge

Since the beginning of the pandemic, we at Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge and North Dumfries (FCCCND) have seen an increase in individuals affected by eating disorders (ED) reaching out for support. Similarly, CMHA Waterloo-Wellington reports that they too are experiencing an uptake in children and youth calling for ED support at a rate 70 percent greater than that seen in 2019.

Provincially and nationally, we are also observing this concerning trend. In a study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health last year, it was reported that in the first ten months of the pandemic, Ontario emergency departments saw a 66 percent uptake in visits from children and adolescents affected by EDs, and hospitalizations associated with EDs rose by 37 percent. Moreover, in November of 2020 alone, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC) saw a more than 50 percent increase in calls over November 2019.

Altered routines, increased stressors, food insecurity, changing treatment modalities and availability, as well as stigmatizing discourses surrounding weight gain during the pandemic all potentially have influenced the rising number of individuals experiencing EDs, disordered eating (DE) and or body image (BI) struggles.

We at FCCCND want to remind everyone that whether there is a pandemic or not, our bodies are dynamic and naturally our weight and shape will not remain stagnant throughout our lives. We, as well as treatment providers need to pushback against idealizing “gold standard” binary body types and westernized restrictive eating patterns. Instead of supporting diet culture, we must embrace diversified and intuitive eating patterns and celebrate all shapes and sizes, as healthy bodies can and do exist at every size.

As NEDIC highlighted last year, “…our bodies just endured a global pandemic.” Frankly, the pandemic is not over, and we are still living in uncertain times. We know support is needed desperately for those affected by EDs. However, local treatment and support is currently not able to meet the increased demand. Across the Region of Waterloo, waitlists for ED treatment are between 10 months and a year. This reality is unacceptable as we recognize that those reaching out for support need timely access to treatment at time of contact, not months later.

As someone who has struggled with DE and BI since my early teens, I know firsthand that more needs to be done to support children, youth and those of all ages who experience EDs, DE and/or BI struggles. At FCCCND, we call on the provincial government to ensure that smaller cities such as Cambridge and the rural communities of North Dumfries are not overlooked when funding is granted from the 2021 Build Ontario Plan. We too need government support for eating disorder programs, as many individuals are forced to travel to Waterloo for outpatient treatment and to cities in the GTA for specialized inpatient treatment. These realities pose significant economic barriers to receiving care, and we must and can do better.

Cassandra Dawson is a Bachelor of Social Work student at the University of Western Ontario and is currently working at Family Counselling Centre of Cambridge and North Dumfries as a summer student.