As Eating Disorder Awareness Week comes to a close across Canada, a rally at the B.C. legislature called for action to support those who are struggling.
Vancouver Island Voices for Eating Disorders (VIVID) held a rally Feb. 7 with hopes to increase awareness about eating disorders, reduce the stigma around them and call for better services.
“There are huge gaps in service and so a really key issue for people right now is having timely, accessible, supportive and safe services,” said Celeste Macevicius, a VIVID member. “The wait-lists are extremely long and there are very, very few services.”
Macevicius said there are no residential care options on the island and out-patient services are limited, adding that other services that were cut at the beginning of COVID-19 have yet to be reinstated.
“People really are lacking any continuum of care or on-going support, both with the medical issues that come with an eating disorder but also with the social and economic issues,” she said. “Treatment is important but also care that is safe and meets them where they are, that is effective and responsive and that can continue.”
The steps to getting help are many. Macevicius said people seeking care first need a referral from a general practitioner or nurse practitioner, which there is a shortage of in B.C.
After securing a referral, a patient would then need to go to a treatment centre, which have wait-lists that are usually months long. Macevicius said adults are only being accepted into treatment if they meet criteria to go to the mainland, where there is residential care.
“To get care, you need to navigate multiple systems that jump jurisdictions between MCFD (Ministry of Children and Family Development), Island Health, Ministry of Health, Province Healthcare and along the way there are lots of gaps,” Macevicius said. “In an ideal situation you would have a team with a GP and a psychiatrist and dietician and a counsellor. Right now people are lucky if they get an outreach worker and some GP support.”
Though there is no localized data for Vancouver Island, nationally the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) reports that four per cent of women experience anorexia and bulimia and two per cent of all Canadians have a binge-eating disorder. While eating disorders don’t discriminate between men and women, 90 per cent of people diagnosed with anorexia or bulimia are women according to CMHA.
“This is an issue of equity and an issue of safety and social justice and care that has been under-addressed and under-acknowledged because of the stigmas that exists toward eating disorders,” she said. “We’re really hoping that there can be concerted and compassionate action to try to improve the situation for everyone who is struggling on the island.”
Shaely Ritchey, a co-founder of VIVID, said one reason treatment is lacking in B.C. is because it isn’t comprehensive.
“You’re treating the eating disorder but there is also probably the underlying causes as well, so frequently when people are trying to access care, they are having one set of symptoms treated and then another set of symptoms for the underlying causes come up, so it is kind of a game of whack-a-mole,” she said.
Ritchey said often when trauma responses arise as a result of treatment, patients will then be discharged to attend trauma counselling, ending their treatment for an eating disorder.
“People just get bounced around between services and frequently disqualified if they don’t meet strict criteria to enter programs,” Ritchey said.
The group is also advocating for southern Vancouver Island’s treatment programs to change hands from the Ministry of Childhood and Family Development to the Ministry of Health.
“What works when you’re a child healing from an eating disorder is very different than when you’ve lived with one for 15 years,” Ritchey said. “There is just so much more room for innovative ways to support people. At the heart of anything we do here, it’s all about collaboration. It is very easy for it to be an us versus them thing, but when we are talking about systems-level change, we need to all work together.”