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'It's a bad illness, a mental illness': Mother details daughter's struggles with eating disorder

Small town, rural living has so many redeeming qualities but when life gets challenging, the glare of the spotlight can be unbearable. An hour and a half away from Edmonton, a single mom and her daughter are taking it day by day. Two years into the pandemic they say feels like an eternity.

"She is struggling hard with it. It's a bad illness, a mental illness. It' s a really bad one, " says Crystal, a mom who's identity we've agreed to conceal. "It wants you to die. The eating disorder, it's so strong it talks to you in your mind."

Prior to the pandemic, her teen daughter danced nine hours a week, excelled in school and had a vibrant social life.

The roller coaster of pandemic restrictions including school closures, paused extra-curricular activites and physical distancing took a toll on her daughter she never expected.

"I think with eating disorders it's something they can control in a world where there is no control right now."

Depression set in. Her then 16-year-old started restricting food and exercising feverishly to match the body images that looked back at her from social media.

"It was so difficult to watch, knowing there's not much you can do. You just have to wait," she says.

It took months to get into one of 12 in-patient beds at the Edmonton Eating Disorders Clinic at the University of Alberta Hospital. It was only after she attempted to take her own life in the summer of 2021 that she was moved from the Stollery Children's Hospital to the specialized program weighing less than 90 pounds. Her weight was restored to 118 pounds but her mom says she's been losing steadily since November and is on the wait list to go back in to hospital.

Dr. Michelle Emmerling, a psychologist as well as director and co-owner of Alberta Wellness Center for Eating Disorders, says the amount of referrals she's getting since COVID-19 hit has increased upwards of 50 per cent during the pandemic.

"I would say the demand is completely overwhelming capacity right now which is really alarming." Her one centre has grown to three during the pandemic, offering multi-disciplinary care including counselling, dieticians, family support and yoga.

A recent study of adolescents in six Canadian cities found new monthly cases of anorexia nervosa increased by 60 per cent and hospitalizations tripled in the first wave of the pandemic.

"We were feeling it, but it's validating to see it in a research study," says Jennifer Couturier, an associate professor of Psychiatry & Behavioural Neurosciences and medical co-director of the Pediatric Eating Disorders Program at McMaster Children’s Hospital. "I've been working in this field for almost 20 years and I've never seen anything like this."

Couturier is now investigating the "why" behind the alarming spike in pandemic-related eating disorders in children and youth. Her study involves interviews with 70 children, parents and clinicians.

"Systematically talking to young people from across the country," she says, "to get their views and opinions on how the pandemic affected them and the development of their eating disorder."

Mark Snaterse, executive director of Addictions and Mental health for Alberta Health Services, says there are many levels of care through AHS including the in-patient Eating Disorders Clinic in both Edmonton and Calgary as well as intensive day treatment in a hospital setting and scheduled clinic appointments to see counsellors and dieticians.

"Triaging takes place based on how acutely sick the person is and how at risk they are."

If there's a silver lining to this shadow pandemic, it could be that many parents are working from home and spending more time with their children according to Dr. Michelle Emmerling.

"Parents are detecting the signs of an eating disorder earlier than they would have. I'm definitely seeing people who've had it for a shorter period of time."

Still, it's the long-term effects of this pandemic that worry parents.

"My daughter... she's going to have to battle this the rest of her life," says Crystal. "Too many kids are sitting and suffering."

Bell Let's Talk day is Wednesday, Jan. 26. Bell will donate five cents to mental health initiatives for every applicable text message, local or long distance call, tweet or TikTok video using #bellletstalk. It also includes the use of the Bell Let's Talk Facebook frame, Snapchat lens and any social media video view.

Bell is the parent company of CTV News. Top Stories

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