People with eating disorders facing new challenges amidst lockdown

With therapy moving online and isolation making it easier to hide disordered behaviour, some students with eating disorders have found it more difficult to manage. Graphic Sheena Macmillan

What does this mean for Concordia’s students dealing with eating disorders?

(Content warning: this article mentions eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, and self-harm.)

“Living through the lockdown with an eating disorder feels extremely alienating,” said Emma Becker, a Concordia computer engineering student. “I never know what will happen. It creates a lot of instability.”

Micheline Bessette, coordinator of BACA, a clinic specializing in eating disorder treatment, said “since last May, the clinic has seen an accentuation of eating disorders in people. The new challenges of being isolated have worsened eating behaviours.” 

Bessette explained the lockdown has created certain situations of added pressure. Being around family all the time means they’re watching everything you eat or don’t eat, not having access to gyms means you can’t exercise anymore, and having access to a fridge at all times means compulsive actions are easier to fall into. This loss of control over ones living situation can heighten already disordered behaviour, or even create new disordered behaviour.

With the majority of students working from home, the bedroom has become where they attend class, do homework, eat, and rest. For students struggling with eating disorders, their bedroom has become an even more overwhelming space. 

“My room is where I take calls with friends but also where I work, and it’s also the only place where I have full privacy,” explained a student in Concordia’s software engineering program, who preferred to remain anonymous. “It becomes really difficult to separate all those aspects of my life while also dealing with a disorder that spreads to practically every realm in my life.”

The difficulty of at-home therapy for eating disorders lies in the fact that the patient is learning how to change at-home behaviours while being in said home. This, in turn, makes it more difficult to recognize and isolate present disordered behaviours. “Therapy helps compartmentalize and target my eating behaviours to be treated. It would be better if said therapy was in person because that effect would be amplified,” the student explained.

“All the coping mechanisms somebody had before are gone.” — Micheline Bessette

“If it were in-person, I would be able to be in an environment where I didn't have to live next to a scale and, instead of having that as a negative presence, I’d be weighed by a professional and we would break it down,” they added. The constant presence of scales, pantries and refrigerators can become a constant stress factor. 

Bessette explained that many behaviours, like vomiting, exercising, restricting, and bingeing, have become impossible to do in many cases. “All the coping mechanisms somebody had before are gone, and this creates a stress that can transform into suicidal ideas, depression and self-mutilation,” she said. 

“My eating disorder is affected by instability,” Becker explained. “When life becomes chaotic and there aren’t many things I [can] control I develop disordered eating as a self-soothing coping mechanism.” The pandemic was a huge change—something out of her control. “I hyperfocus on my eating to escape other parts of my life I can’t control. Even though I don’t actually have control, it feels like I do because I’m aware of what I’m doing.” 

“An eating disorder changes over time and it adapts to your environment,” she said. As one’s living situation changes, the eating disorder will change as well, with new behaviours replacing older ones. 

For Becker, being in the presence of friends made it more difficult to hide the disorder. Now that she’s living alone, it’s easier to hide her disordered behaviour. “I know Concordia has a few resources, but I’ve never seeked help through them,” she said about the university resources offered to students with eating disorders. “If I'm currently living with disordered eating habits, I don't want to get help. The best way to fight it is to openly talk about it and create awareness of the consequences, it makes you want to seek help.”

“I hyperfocus on my eating to escape other parts of my life I can’t control. Even though I don’t actually have control, it feels like I do because I’m aware of what I’m doing.” — Emma Becker

However, the access to resources for people with eating disorders has been greatly affected by the pandemic. Even before the pandemic resources were limited, according to Bessette. Now, help is almost inaccessible. 

“Regardless of what the government has done, the resources are very scarce. Specialized clinics and hospitals are doing everything virtually, which is not ideal when treating eating disorders,” she explained. “Private psychologists are at overboard client capacity with immense waiting lists. The community isn’t able to respond to the high demand of help needed.” 

Because of this shortage, there are other ways in which recovery can take place. Sometimes a parent will take charge of their child’s eating by making sure they’re eating and accompanying them as they eat, Bessette explained. In other cases, like that of the software engineering student, their roommates have taken on the role of caregivers and have helped them through their recovery process. However, this can often come with feelings of guilt and discomfort.

“While I’m very grateful to have their help, I also feel guilty that I’ve put them in that position. We’re all adults, but they’re taking care of me,” they said. “It was also jarring going from having a solitary relationship with food where only I had control to having other people watching and making sure I’m okay.”

Without the proper tools and support to take care of their eating behaviours, students affected by eating disorders are faced with challenges that often exceed their fortitude. It’s important to be aware of how to support people affected by eating disorders. “Awareness is key,” Becker said. “People living with eating disorders need a supportive environment.”