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Four major Canadian eating-disorders organizations have banded together to create a national strategy aimed at improving the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Canadians who have an eating disorder.

The four non-profits released their strategy on Thursday, setting out 50 recommendations focused on boosting prevention, public awareness, treatment, caregiver support, training and research.

“Navigating the health-care system and accessing specialized treatments can be extremely difficult, and a large proportion of the eating-disorders system of care in Canada is not very well-integrated,” said Emily Tam, special projects lead for the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, which put out the statement along with the National Initiative for Eating Disorders, the Eating Disorders Association of Canada and the Eating Disorders Foundation of Canada.

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Moreover, health professionals in Canada often receive little training to effectively treat individuals with eating disorders, she said, explaining the national strategy aims to help fill these gaps.

“People living with and affected by eating disorders deserve more support,” she said.

As many as one million Canadians are believed to be living with an eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge-eating disorder, and one in 10 individuals with anorexia die within 10 years of diagnosis. Due to the high mortality rates and frequency of suicide among those who have these conditions, eating disorders are considered the deadliest of mental illnesses. But Canadians who have them encounter numerous obstacles to getting the help they need.

Even among health professionals, common misconceptions persist that eating disorders are all about one’s eating habits and body image, or that their severity is tied to a person’s weight. On the contrary, those who specialize in treating them explain they are intertwined with emotional and psychological issues that can be debilitating, regardless of one’s weight.

As a parliamentary standing committee documented in a 2014 report, people with eating disorders face discrimination from health-care professionals; financial roadblocks, since many mental-health services are not funded by the provinces; and a lack of programs that treat those who also have a concurrent disorder, such as anxiety, depression or substance-use issue.

While the parliamentary standing committee issued a series of recommendations for the federal government to address some of these obstacles, its mandate was limited, said Mark Ferdinand, chairman and executive director of the National Initiative for Eating Disorders.

“It wasn't up to them, and nor was it up to the federal government to solve all of the problems” in the parliamentary committee report, he said. “That's why we created this strategy because we knew that we had a role to play.”

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The new strategy is not aimed at a specific audience but is instead intended for anyone involved in the field of eating disorders, from researchers to treatment providers to individuals simply wanting to better understand these disorders, said David Pilon, vice-president of the Eating Disorders Foundation of Canada.

“We are hopeful that anyone with an interest in eating disorders will look at this to say, ‘This is a snapshot of what is happening with eating disorders in the country. … What can I do in my domain of influence to try to move things forward?’ ” Dr. Pilon said.

Among the recommendations included in the strategy: to create and fund specialized services with all levels of treatment for patients with eating disorders of varying severity; to improve the sharing of best practices and evidence-based care between health professionals and service providers; to develop workplace policies that can better accommodate caregivers; and to create a task force that would set minimum standards for education in eating disorders for all health disciplines.

The four non-profits aim to see these recommendations implemented over the next 10 years.

Currently, mental-health professionals can feel reluctant to treat individuals with eating disorders because the medical component of the illness may be beyond the scope of their training, said psychologist Cheryl Aubie, president of the Eating Disorders Association of Canada. Meanwhile, medical professionals can find the mental-health aspect of these disorders to be complicated and challenging.

She said improving training and communication among these professionals can help them feel more confident.

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“Individuals with eating disorders are complex for sure, but … getting to know what they need and how to treat them appropriately doesn’t have to be so intimidating,” she said.

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