Filling the Gap in Eating Disorder Services
Eating Disorders (EDs) are serious conditions impacting both mental and physical health. The consequences are often severe, as EDs account for the second-highest mortality rates among all mental health disorders. Those dealing with EDs are more likely to have heart problems, bone density issues, neurological issues, and are often at high risk of suicidality. They are also likely to experience intense strains on their personal relationships and have trouble functioning at school or work.
Debra Katzman, a leader in ED treatment at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, recently wrote that there has been a long-standing underinvestment in eating disorders by our health system. Furthermore, efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing, along with school closures, disruptions in routines, disconnection from peers, and restrictions on extra-curricular activities, have led to increases in ED symptoms among children. It has been documented that increased time spent on social media platforms promoting unattainable beauty standards also contributes to increases in the prevalence of EDs. Factor in reduced access to healthcare and mental health services, job and food insecurity, and restricted social connectivity, it’s not surprising that service providers are reporting unprecedented demands from both children and adults, not just locally, but internationally.
For 25 years, Sheena’s Place (SP) has provided support for individuals with eating disorders and their families, free of charge. The team at Sheena’s Place is committed to minimizing barriers to accessing services, resulting in a unique experience that participants are unlikely to find elsewhere. Before the pandemic, the services were offered out of “the house,” a warm and welcoming environment just off the northwest corner of the University of Toronto. Visitors were welcomed with the offer of tea or coffee and support, regardless of a referral or diagnosis. There was always a service they could access without being placed on a long waitlist. The program team has worked hard over the years to respond to the community’s needs, building programs up to feature artsbased, nutrition-focused, body image and movement groups, as well as some that focus on skill-building. There are also many support groups as participants benefit significantly from building connections and a sense of community.
In March of 2020, the team made a swift pivot to online services. Sheena’s Place staff, along with their roster of facilitators, very quickly and diligently adapted the programming. The participants responded by engaging virtually, showing up for themselves and each other, and ensuring continuity of care. In 2020, nearly 900 individuals benefited from Sheena’s Place’s services. In 2021, during the silver anniversary, Sheena’s Place is tracking to outpace that number. Before the pandemic, participants were required to attend the house physically. With online offerings, individuals are now able to engage from anywhere in Ontario. This year, in response to the growing demand, services were expanded. While many are looking forward to the day when staff and participants can return safely to meet in person, SP plans to continue to devote resources to keep meeting the needs of folks outside of the GTA.
“I struggled with isolation prior to the pandemic… In addition to ED, I have severe anxiety, depression, and fatigue. The online groups have opened up a world of possibilities. I needed this more than I realised, and I can’t thank Sheena’s Place and its wonderful team enough.”
On November 25, Sheena’s Place will host a virtual event to celebrate the past twentyfive years of serving those with EDs and to look ahead to what the future may hold. For more information, please visit sheenasplace.org.