Eating disorders thrive in secrecy and isolation, making the COVID-19 pandemic a naturally triggering situation for people with the illness or in recovery.
According to the non-profit peer support group Eating Disorders Nova Scotia (EDNS), the complex and serious illness has the highest death rate of any mental illness, and impacts about 1 in 12 people.
"They hide in plain sight because so many of the behaviours associated with eating disorders have become normalized in our culture," says Executive Director of EDNS, Shaleen Jones. "Over-exercising, being really restrictive with our food, clean eating, these are all characteristics that are typically associated with eating disorders but are also widely seen as virtuous."
Jones says living with COVID-19 can be dangerous for people with eating disorders because of social distancing, higher levels of stress, a lack of control, as well as food availability and stockpiling. These factors are known to cause relapses and pose huge mental health threats.
"All the things that help support people in recovery have shifted, some considerably," she says. "And all the things that can feed an eating disorder, are suddenly more present."
On top of these challenges, is the added pressure from social media where posts about gaining the "quarantine 15," and home workout videos, are widely being circulated.
"When you are in that mindset and trying to stay above water and in recovery, it is just so daunting," she says.
The eating disorders community is also concerned that people with the illness are at a heightened risk for developing COVID-19 because of complications that could arise, especially for people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
"We think they may be at more of a risk because of the strain their bodies are already under, and that they aren't equipped to physically handle the stress that could come from having the illness," she says.
EDNS offers all its programs online, including a twice-weekly chat, ongoing peer support, parenting supports, and learning resources.
"Even before this month happened e-mental health has been growing tremendously across Canada and internationally," she says. "These options can be just as therapeutic, just as helpful for folks living with mental health issues as they can be face to face."Across North America about 90 per cent of people with an eating disorder don't seek treatment or specialized care. Jones says EDNS tries to remove some of the barriers to accessing support.
"We don't require diagnosis, or a doctor's referral, it is for anyone who self-identifies as struggling with issues around exercise, food, weight, and body image," she says.
In the last three months, EDNS has reached roughly 230 people through online peer support and more than 300 in its chat sessions.
For more information on EDNS online mental health resources, visit its website.