The coronavirus pandemic has not been easy on people who struggle with eating disorders. Since March, most people have been spending more time at home, more time online, and more time using social media – environments where eating disorders thrive. Absent the distractions of pre-pandemic life, isolation and loneliness, alongside other mental health issues, can become all-consuming. The stress, fear, confusion, and uncertainty this public health crisis has created are fuel for the fire. The National Eating Disorders Association reported a 90 percent increase in calls to its hotline between March and September.
The Eating Disorder Resource and Support Centre (EDRSC) was founded in 2019, two years after the McGill Eating Disorder Program was fully defunded in a series of funding cuts to the university’s mental health resources. Becoming a fee-funded SSMU Service in March 2020, it now hosts peer-support programs, educates students on eating disorders, and conducts advocacy work within and outside the McGill community. The Daily spoke with Paloma Hepler, one of the training coordinators at the EDRSC, to find out more about the services being offered during the pandemic.
“We are currently offering two primary support services,” Hepler explained, “virtual support groups, and a forum in partnership with the Looking Glass Foundation.” Virtual support group sessions are held twice a week, on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning, over Zoom. They are facilitated by two trained volunteers, and they provide “a place for attendees to listen and share as much or as little as they feel comfortable doing.” These sessions are free of charge and entirely confidential.
The EDRSC’s online forum is called the Personal Recovery Space. It was developed in partnership with the Looking Glass Foundation, a BC-based organization that supports people struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating. McGill students can communicate one-on-one with a trained volunteer on a 24/7 basis.
Due to COVID-19 restrictions, no in-person services or resources are available right now. The EDRSC does, however, participate in a number of advocacy events that have moved online, including SSMU Mental Health Awareness Week, Mental Illness Awareness Week, and Eating Disorder Awareness Week. They also have a library of books and other material on eating disorders and disordered eating, maintain an active presence on social media, and are about to publish a zine featuring creative work on eating disorders, body image, fatphobia, and related topics.
When asked why the EDRSC is such an important resource for students – especially during this pandemic – Hepler told the Daily that “university-age students are already vulnerable to eating disorders in a number of ways.” She cited academic and financial stress, experiences of discrimination, and social pressures as key contributors to eating disorders, noting also that meal plans and cafeteria-based eating environments – which leave little room for privacy during mealtime – can make it difficult to manage them.
COVID-19 only exacerbates these issues, per Hepler. “Isolation may make it easier to restrict or engage in other harmful behaviours, especially if social support helps you avoid engaging in those behaviours. On the other hand, having to stay home all the time can make it difficult to have privacy and binge.” Financial insecurity is also a concern, Hepler says; it can affect a person’s mental health as well as their control over what they eat.
Hepler stresses that the student-run EDRSC cannot replace the services and expert mental health professionals – like those who staffed the former McGill Eating Disorder Program – can provide. “Our services are neither perfect nor all-encompassing,” she says, “but we intend for them to be used as a resource during such a difficult and isolating time. Their financial accessibility, as well as the fact that they are run for and by students, can make them particularly relevant.”
For more information, visit https://ssmu.ca/resources/eating-disorders/.