One million Canadians live with a diagnosed eating disorder. That’s about the population of Saskatchewan. And yet, we don’t talk about them enough.
Pandemic-related stress has unquestionably had a profound impact on mental and physical health worldwide. Those with eating disorders, as well as those susceptible to developing eating disorders, are no exception to this.
It has been reported that a notable hike in eating disorders and disordered eating has occurred in Saskatoon during the pandemic.
For many, the initial mandatory lockdown led to increased depression, anxiety and loss of a sense of control. To cope with psychosocial stressors, some may turn to negatively controlling their food.
Eating disorders have the highest overall mortality rate of any mental illness, with an estimated mortality rate of between 10 to 15 per cent. For anorexia nervosa, the number one leading cause of death is heart disease, followed by suicide.
According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, up to 17 per cent of post-secondary students are affected by an eating disorder. A cause for this is that, from juggling studying for several classes, to taking exams and completing assignments on schedule, university students are placed under a great deal of stress.
With so many of us being affected, why are we not hearing more about eating disorders?
There are many barriers to seeking support for any mental illness. For eating disorders especially, these barriers are exacerbated by the overwhelming stigma that surrounds them.
Eating disorders differ from some other mental illnesses in that they often manifest themselves physically. As a result, many of those who do not fit the physical diagnostic criteria are cast aside and left to struggle in the dark.
Black, Indigenous and people of colour are susceptible to inequitable access to diagnosis and treatment for eating disorders. This can be attributed to the systemic racism that continues to perpetuate in many aspects of society including healthcare.
It’s made worse by the fact that society typically portrays those with eating disorders only as thin white females.
But eating disorders do not discriminate by appearance or ethnicity. It has been found that there are few differences in disordered eating among African American, Latin American, and European American college women.
So what can we as a society do to facilitate change?
Eating disorders occur as a result of a complex interplay of environmental, biological and socio-economic influences. Because eating disorders are sometimes visible to the naked eye, many people jump to conclusions based on widespread misconceptions.
These misconceptions play a large role in contributing to stigma and shame and discouraging those suffering from seeking help or speaking out. For example, in literature from 2014 it was found that up to one third of British adults believed those with eating disorders were to blame for their condition.
By placing the blame on the individual with the disorder, we demand that they fix it themselves.
This stigma is internalized by those suffering, leading to beliefs that they should be able to fix the disorder themselves and that they are solely responsible for it.
More concerning, stigma internalization leads to longer duration of the condition, lower self-esteem and makes patients less willing to get psychological help.
This stigma is worse than most can imagine. When comparing societal perceptions of eating disorders and depression, it was found that attitudes towards those with eating disorders were significantly more stigmatizing than those with depression.
To prevent those struggling from internalizing misconceptions and refraining from seeking help, we need increased public education and awareness. We need to change the eating disorder narrative.
If you think you or someone you know may be struggling with disordered eating, please visit https://nedic.ca/.
This op-ed was written by a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate student and reflects the views and opinions of the writer. If you would like to write a reply, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Mikaela Antaya is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying kinesiology.
Graphic: Anh Phan | Design Editor