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Since recovering from an eating disorder, Rylee McKinlay has become a peer support worker at Foundry Penticton, a provincewide care initiative supported by the B.C. government, and an advocate for those suffering with eating disorders.Handout

Rylee McKinlay, 26, said pandemic-related stress and anxiety took a toll on many people, but especially those with eating disorders. She was first diagnosed with one at 15. “I’m very lucky to have a success story with this disease. Lots of people don’t make it and another large percentage just live with the illness their whole lives,” she said.

Since recovering, Ms. McKinlay has become a peer support worker at Foundry Penticton, a provincewide care initiative supported by the B.C. government, and an advocate for those suffering with eating disorders.

The pandemic was the perfect storm, “especially for youth,” Ms. McKinlay said. “They’re isolated at home; they don’t have their connection. They feel like the world is out of control; they have no control. So they think, ‘If I could just control what I put in my body, maybe everything will be okay.’ ”

According to recent data from the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), eating disorder hospitalizations among girls and young women aged 10 to 17 jumped nearly 60 per cent since March, 2020. Experts say this increase is linked to a number of factors, including pandemic uncertainty and increased attention to dieting trends on social media. But, these data also point to a larger issue about the way eating disorders are addressed in Canada.

Tracy Johnson, director of health system analytics at CIHI, said that hospitalizations escalated with each wave of COVID-19. “What we hear from experts is that uncertainty and change are the things that can go hand in hand with eating disorders,” she said.

“These kids certainly are sicker” then most hospitals have seen before, Ms. Johnson said, partly because of long wait times for treatment. Eating disorder clinics are not able to see 70 per cent of the referrals they’re getting right now, she said. “The concerning part is that a kid who was referred to them maybe six months ago with moderate illness, hasn’t been able to be seen and is getting sicker.”

The National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), a non-profit organization that offers a free helpline and chat service to those struggling with eating disorders, reported similar data to those in CIHI’s report. It was 33 per cent busier this year than during the first year of the pandemic and 110 per cent busier than the last prepandemic year, said Aryel Maharaj, outreach and education co-ordinator at NEDIC.

But, he said, this increase is not new. “Even before the pandemic, wait lists for hospital-based programs for people struggling with eating disorders were anywhere from six months to a year to even 18 months long.”

Dr. Rosheen Grady, assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at McMaster University, said, “The pandemic really just magnified and contributed to the existing eating disorder crisis in Canada.”

Historically, eating disorder care has been underfunded in Canada and many community-care centres have been overwhelmed since the pandemic, Dr. Grady said. “During the first wave of the pandemic, the health care system ramped down so there was lack of access to regular resources, routine assessment and potentially to people’s doctors as well.”

All of this, coupled with social-media dieting trends – such as pressure to lose extra pounds from what is known as “the COVID 15” – could have contributed to the rise in eating disorder symptoms.

“Lots of kids lost access to their coping mechanisms during the pandemic,” said Ayisha Kurji, a consultant pediatrician in Saskatchewan and associate professor at the University of Saskatchewan. “We know from even before the pandemic, more time on social media can lead to increased risks in developing eating disorders.”

“Sometimes if you’ve lost weight, the natural reaction for people is to praise you,” she added. “We have this natural tendency in society to think that thin is better,” which is another reason why these issues may go unnoticed and lead to hospitalizations.

This is something that Ms. McKinlay, the B.C. peer support worker, saw as well. “Unfortunately this rise in hospitalizations is not surprising,” she said. During quarantine, there was a big incentive for self-improvement, and fitness and dieting accounts on social media grew in popularity.

“These accounts on social media may be portraying health, but it’s never about health,” Ms. McKinlay said. “Everyday you’re looking at these bodies and comparing yourself and that builds a narrative in your head of not being enough.”

Many experts agree that the combination of the pandemic, social-media use and societal pressures to be thinner all contributed to an increase in young women struggling with eating disorders.

Though these disorders are often more prevalent among young women as CIHI data suggest, Dr. Grady said that the data may not have captured the complete experience of young men or those who identify as masculine or gender diverse. “Eating disorders in those populations look different,” she said.

So long as there are adequate support systems for those suffering from these disorders in Canada, Ms. McKinlay said that recovery is possible. “There is no place of happiness at the end of the road of an eating disorder. But, there is a life beyond an eating disorder,” she said.

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