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A tale of comorbity: How eating disorders and mental health go hand in hand.

Eating disorders are often accompanied by anxiety, depression and stress. During quarantine, even more so.

The NEDIC helpline (1-866-NEDIC-20 and 416-340-4156) will be open from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. (all times EST)

The stigma surrounding eating disorders spans from regarding them as a ‘phase’ or a ‘cry for attention’, a predominantly ‘white’ and ‘female’ problem, to the belief that they happen on their own, out of nowhere, seemingly unlinked to any mental health conditions.

“Eating disorders often co-occur with depression, anxiety, self-harm, trauma, and substance use," says Ary Maharaj, Outreach & Education Coordinator at National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC).

Since the start of the pandemic, NEDIC has seen a 30% increase in call volumes while staff and work hours have been reduced. Since the start of quarantine and self-isolation, a significant amount of callers are confronting their eating disorders for the first time and relying on social media for answers. The mixed messages they read regarding weight, food, exercise and body comparisons result in increased anxiety levels, especially for Canadian youth.

“I think there's a lot of disguised weight loss messaging in how people are talking about health and fitness on social media right now, and that can be especially hurtful for people struggling with an eating disorder," says Maharaj.

In a survey published in 2012 by Statistics Canada, around a million Canadians have been identified as struggling with an eating disorder.

“That's around the population or Saskatchewan or Ottawa, which is around 3% of Canadians,” says Maharaj.

On average, eating disorders are estimated to affect 7.8% of the global population.

That does not include people who might not have a clinical diagnosis, who might not meet the criteria for a diagnosis, or who simply don’t feel comfortable confronting their eating disorder.

Maharaj says NEDIC supports people regardless of diagnosis. So even if callers are just struggling with food and weight concerns, disordered eating, too much exercising or anything related, they don't turn people away and work with everyone.

Maharaj is currently the only full-time male staff member at NEDIC, and he finds the way our society looks at men with eating disorders very saddening.

“I think a lot of people don't know that eating disorders affect people of all ranges of genders, sexual orientations, race, and socioeconomic status. Around 20% of the people who are affected in Canada are probably boys and men. But there is a lot of stigma, and when a man reaches out for help, society shames him as if it is a ‘girl issue’. There’s even an extra layer of nuance for folks in our queer and trans communities, who are often at higher risk.”

While the fight to raise awareness and combat stigma continues, the pandemic served as a silver lining for some young Canadians who struggle with eating disorders and mental health. For some, quarantine has actually turned out to be beneficial.

“I think that quarantine has been a blessing in disguise. I've really been able to focus on myself. And I've heard a lot of people say how this has made their anxiety worse, but for me, it's actually made it really good because I finally can focus on myself and start to heal those things that I still need to work on,” said Meredith Omstead, a journalism student in a Zoom interview on May 15. “For example, I always had such bad fear of missing out. But right now, I don't have that because there's nothing going on,” she added.

Omstead has been diagnosed with anxiety with obsessive tendencies in the past — the recovery from which is an ongoing process — and orthorexia nervosa, from which she has recovered. In 2014, she had to take off school for eight months to sit at home and recover because her mental illness worsened. She describes herself as fortunate, because she has experienced a similar experience to quarantine back then.

She said self-isolation in 2014 was harder than quarantine during this pandemic, because back then she was the only one who was at home while her friends were in second year of university, partying and having fun. It was very different from what she imagined being 19 would be like.

“I thought that that was going to be the time that I was going to go to the bar and drink but I was at home sleeping 18 hours a day, trying to heal my brain from so many years of negligence. So now that I actually can be at home and be in a better place mentally and continue to heal… It's been a blessing.”

For most young Canadians, being home, in a safe place with their loved ones seems to be of major help during the anxiety-filled pandemic. “If you're not isolated with a group of people who recognize the reality you're experiencing, it can be really challenging to motivate yourself to continue to be well,” says Ally Geist, who struggled with eating disorders and depression in the past. She works at a textbook company and is spending quarantine with her parents and siblings.

She is appreciative of the struggles she overcame in the past, because it helped her deal with the current situation with a sense of awareness about the stigma surrounding mental health and eating disorders. She is also aware of the struggles her male friends and people of colour have around eating disorders and how society doesn’t take any of this seriously.

“I do feel grateful to have these experiences because it made me realize how many preconceived ideas about eating disorders there are and how many people don't have the privilege I have to be able to access care and have people believe me when I try to access care,” she concluded.

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