A peer support program and research project launching this year in three Canadian cities, including Halifax, aims to understand why eating disorders have sharply increased among children and adolescents across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dr. Herbert Orlik, a psychiatrist for children and adolescents at the IWK Heath Centre in Halifax, said the women and children's hospital receives 80 to 100 new referrals for youth with eating disorders in a typical year. In 2021, there were more than 200 new referrals.
"It's been a massive increase for us to see and assess those young people," said Orlik.
"There may have been already something going on before the pandemic became an issue because we saw an uptick in the numbers of referrals already in January 2020, but then it increased — and it has not slowed down."
Dr. Jennifer Couturier, medical co-director of the pediatric eating disorders program at McMaster Children's Hospital in Hamilton, was awarded a $149,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to conduct the study and launch a parent peer support program later this year for families in Halifax, as well as Hamilton and Calgary.
Her research project will involve interviews with 70 children, parents, clinicians and administrators starting this month.
Hospitalizations on the rise
Like the IWK, Couturier's clinic has also seen referrals double since early 2020. She said across the country, hospital admissions for anorexia nervosa — the disorder she and her colleagues are seeing most commonly — have nearly tripled from an average of seven a month up to 20.
"We're trying to understand why we've seen this huge spike in new cases of eating disorders appear, and a doubling, tripling of hospitalizations going on," said Couturier, an associate professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at McMaster University.
Couturier said another commonly observed condition in young people throughout the pandemic has been avoidant/restrictive food disorder, which involves restrictions or limitations around food for a variety of reasons, including sensory aversions or fears of choking.
At the same time, young people have reported a lack of structure stemming from the suspension of in-class learning and the loss of interaction with friends, classmates and extended family, said Couturier in a recent news release. She said young people began focusing on their body image and social media posts about people gaining weight, "which often frightened them."
Orlik said the pandemic has exacerbated anxiety for many young people. The majority of referrals for eating disorders at the IWK are for female patients, he said.
"Our anxiety disorder referrals have also increased … young people with eating disorders seem to be suffering from anxiety a great deal," Orlik told CBC News.
"One way in which sometimes young people express anxiety is that when they can't control anything else in their lives, they can control maybe what they eat."
The parent peer support program will be provided through Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, a non-profit organization that works to create supports for those impacted by eating disorders. The organization will be responsible for arranging virtual meetings, facilitating discussion and providing information on health resources.
Executive director Shaleen Jones said the organization is happy to be a part of the pilot.
"Eating disorders are so incredibly common and are the third-most common illness for adolescents," said Jones.
"It impacts so many families and so many young people and people of all ages, so we're really excited to be able to work on this project."
Couturier said final details are still being worked out, but it's hoped the parent peer support program will be ready by spring in Halifax. The program will roll out in Hamilton and Calgary at a later date.
Aside from providing insight into why pandemic anxiety might be manifesting as eating disordered behaviour, including over-exercising and food restriction, Couturier said she hopes the project will demonstrate the value of parent peer support.
"We really want to get systematic evidence from youth in particular, but [also] parents as to what their thoughts are on why this is happening," she told CBC News.
"We want to hopefully demonstrate how helpful peer support is for this group, this population, and spread the word and get it more commonly available to other parents."
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