'Majority of people do suffer in silence': Stigma around eating disorders remains

The first week of February marks eating disorder awareness week, and advocates say there are still misunderstandings around the disorder and stigma around its sufferers. 

Behaviours associated with eating disorders can be a preoccupation with body image and weight, overeating, purging, starvation or overexercising. According to the National Eating Disorder Information Centre, nearly one million Canadians suffer from an eating disorder.

But Kaela Scott, an eating disorder therapist with Vancouver's Looking Glass Foundation, says the number could be much higher because it is difficult for people to seek help.

"The strong majority of people do suffer in silence ... I would argue probably one in four, one in five individuals struggle with some form of eating disorder or disordered eating that can then spiral out of control," Scott said. 

"For all of the people that I see in my office with a very full practice, maybe 10 per cent of those people have a formal diagnosis."

Enduring stigma

The stigma surrounding eating disorders exacerbates the issue.

Kyla Lee, a Vancouver-based lawyer, revealed she has suffered from an eating disorder for almost 15 years. Lee said she was inspired by MLA Bowinn Ma, who revealed her own struggle with disordered eating in 2019. 

"It started as just sort of weird eating habits, not eating when I was stressed," Lee said. 

"It just became something that everybody became aware of because it was glaringly obvious looking at me, but nobody in my family really knew what to do about it."

She credits her boss with finally helping her get the right treatment, putting her on the path to recovery almost seven years ago. 

But still, she said, going public with the disorder was a difficult decision because of the stigma.

"My heart is racing and my palms are really sweaty," she said. "It's very nerve-wracking, but I appreciate the very supportive response people have been giving me." 

Treatment programs available

There have been improvements in how the disorder is addressed — including formal treatment programs and peer support groups.

When Elspeth Humphreys, who now works as the Fraser Health regional co-ordinator for their eating disorders program, developed anorexia nervosa as a teenager years ago, there were no formal treatment programs for the illness or support for family.

"My parents felt helpless and overwhelmed. They didn't have any support at that time," Humphreys said. 

She says Fraser Health offers family members a two-day workshop, whether or not the person with the disorder is undergoing treatment at Fraser Health.

The Looking Glass Foundation, which has been in operation since 2002, has provided peer support programs for the past 10 years. One of the programs is an online program, which allows people more privacy in accessing support, Scott explained. 

"There's quite a bit of stigma and shame that comes out about owning it and being out in the public and having people know that they're struggling," Scott said. 

Humphreys says its important to take the disorder seriously and seek the appropriate help.

"People come in all different shapes and sizes and can have very serious eating disorders," she said. "I think it's really important to know that it's not a fad or phase in someone who is young."

Need help?

Visit Kelty Eating Disorders, a provincial resource centre specific to B.C. that provides information on what is an eating disorder, the types of disorders, treatment options and how to find help. 

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental health issues, the Crisis Services Canada website is a good resource. You can also call them toll-free at 1-833-456-4566 or text 45645.