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Demand for eating disorders supports soars during pandemic

Red Deer Advocate - 1/30/2021

Red Deerians will see a purple glow coming from Red Deer College on Monday night where Gary W. Harris Canada Games Centre will be lit up as part of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

For the first time, the centre is one of 12 Alberta buildings and structures participating in Landmark Lightup. Buildings in Edmonton, Calgary and Lethbridge will also be lit up from 6:30 p.m. until late.

Lauren Berlinguette, Eating Disorder Support Network of Alberta executive director, said the demand for support groups quickly jumped last spring when the pandemic hit.

"We ran three-and-a-half times more support groups at that time than we would normally at that time of year, and we had five times the number (of) participants," Berlinguette said.

"We saw a huge upswing in people reaching out for help," she said, including people experiencing a re-emergence of symptoms, a worsening of existing symptoms, or the development of symptoms for those who never had them before.

Berlinguette said demand continued into the summer and fall. A support group for women over 40, and another addressing binge eating, were both full with wait lists in a matter of hours of posting them on the networks' website in September.

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Colleen Hauck, executive director of Calgary Silver Linings Foundation, said COVID exasperated an already very isolating illness.

"With eating disorders, people tend to withdraw. Access to care is very difficult under the best of circumstances so when you layer in the pandemic, and you layer in the isolation we've all been required to live under, for all the right reasons, that has further isolated individuals."

She said prior to the pandemic there was already a lack of access to therapists and registered dietitians, and no residential treatment centre in Alberta. People are often admitted to hospital because their physical health, and are released back to the same environments instead of residential treatment.

"Our ultimate goal is working towards creating a residential treatment for individuals in the province because nothing currently exists."

She said British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Ontario have residential treatment centres, but they are provincially funded for residents of those provinces. Some Albertans seek private treatment in the United States, but it's costly.

Hauck said the pandemic shone a light on eating disorders and now the province better understands that there is an issue.

"Silver Linings certainly is having conversations with Alberta Health Services, with the government, with the Calgary eating disorder program on how we can do better for people with eating disorders in Alberta."