COVID-19 could be ‘life-and-death’ for those with eating disorders

Source: By Fallon Hewitt, The Hamilton Spectator, Published April 9, 2020

At a time when many are scrolling through their phones, Jaime Drayer has had to limit her consumption of social media to protect herself from “triggering” content.

Recovering from anorexia nervosa and bulimia, Drayer said she has been “bombarded” with posts about the COVID-19 “quarantine 15” and others that dissuade stress eating.

“It’s so triggering and traumatizing,” she said. “Once you see that kind of content, the damage is done, I already feel a deep sense of shame.”

Social media is one facet of the damage being elevated by the pandemic, said Dr. Karen Trollope, co-founder of Body Brave, a Hamilton-based organization that offers community-based treatment for those living with eating disorders.

“That is a big danger,” she said. “It can be very harmful.”

In the last number of weeks, Trollope said the nonprofit has seen an uptick in demand. On a regular basis, they may see two to three people reaching out per day. Those numbers have since more than doubled.

Trollope believes the increase is due to the closure of a number of hospital day treatment programs across Ontario amid the pandemic. In Hamilton, the program at St. Joseph’s has since gone virtual, she added.

“We’ve received calls from people from all parts of the province,” said Trollope. “There is definitely a shortage of services.”

With fewer patients getting the services they need, the risk of relapse can grow and all progress made in treatment could be “halted,” said Trollope.

Already offering virtual groups and appointments prior to COVID-19, Trollope said the entire organization has since moved online. Clients can now access group sessions, individual appointments, as well as workshops all through a screen.

Based on what they’ve heard so far, the effects of what could be months of social isolation and physical distancing is “worrisome,” said Trollope.

With some now laid off and others not leaving their apartments, Trollope said some women are “cooped up” to the extent that they are unable to distract themselves from their usual symptoms and anxieties.

If anything, their mental health concerns have only escalated, said Trollope.

“People have been saying that they are so stressed that they’re going back to their eating disorder to cope,” she said. “We’re seeing people relapsing and their symptoms getting worse.”

Co-founder Sonia Kumar-Seguin said for many, it’s like having the “rug pulled out from underneath them” as they lose a sense of purpose and productivity they had worked to get back. “It can feel like a movement backwards,” said Kumar-Seguin, who has been in recovery from anorexia nervosa and bulimia for six years. She and her mother, Dr. Trollope, founded the nonprofit in 2017.

“This could be a life-and-death situation,” she added.

Drayer said if she didn’t have her work as a Hamilton-based graphic designer to keep her distracted, she could see herself having flipped back to her old habit of over-exercising and “obsessively” counting calories during COVID-19. “You’re just at home, with your own thoughts,” said Drayer.

With all but essential stores having closed their doors due to the pandemic, one chance for many to get out of the house is to grocery shop.

Combining long lineups, issues of food availability and the chance of catching the respiratory virus, Trollope said those struggling would only have their stresses “amplified.”

“People with eating disorders already have a fear of food, so now you add onto that, a fear of obtaining the food,” said Drayer. “It’s a recipe for disaster.”

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