Eating disorder assistance lacking in Ontario

Brooke Langman has spent much of her life trying not to become a statistic.

“I was sick enough; my heart could have stopped beating at any moment,” she said.

At 16, she attended the youth day program for eating disorders at Southlake Regional Health Centre (in Newmarket, Ont.), the only hospital in York Region to offer any sort of eating disorder program. She said she found the program ineffective. When she was 21 she found help at Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont.

“The amount of resources for people with eating disorders is absolutely despicable,” Langman said. “If you want help for your eating disorder you have to be medically unstable, and even then, there are only four beds in Mississauga and I think 10 at Toronto General. Hospital programs, if they are going to continue to exist, certainly need to be revamped.”

A study published in the book “Eating Disorders and Obesity,” by Christopher Fairburn and Kelly Brownell, reported that anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and that about 10 per cent of its victims will die within 10 years of becoming anorexic. Long-term, eating disorders kill approximately 20 per cent of sufferers.

Based on its website figures, in 2007, the Ontario government contributed $11.6 million to eating disorder programs.

Homewood (in Guelph) is one of only two centres of its kind in all of Canada, offering round-the-clock help to those in its in-patient program. Langman said it can take over two years to gain access to one of the 13 beds in the facility for those expecting OHIP coverage. These 13 spaces make up the largest inpatient eating disorder program in the country.

Janice Morgante, the executive director at Eating Disorders of York Region, said the lack of spaces in medical treatment programs is a crisis situation. She said an estimate of just 10 spaces per program is generous and that the wait for a spot is usually lengthy.

“The thing people need to be aware of is there’s a waitlist for an assessment to get into a hospital program; then there’s a waitlist after the assessment,” she said. “In the meantime, what often happens is people become more medically unstable on the waitlist… It’s really, really life-threatening.”

Eating Disorders of York Region is a non-profit organization that provides support through facilitated group meetings and a help line.

“What we hope to do is create an early intervention centre so that people never are so sick that their life is in peril while they’re on a waitlist,” Morgante said.

Sheena’s Place, in Toronto, tries to fill the same gap in lieu of services offered by medical centres. Julie Notto is program manager at Sheena’s.

“People come to Sheena’s place to attend support groups. Some people come when they’re on the waitlist for treatment, some people come after treatment, some people are in a day program, [and] some people feel treatment isn’t a good fit for them,” she said.

Though spaces are limited, programs usually give preference to those already admitted to hospital for being medically unstable. Morgante said those who are in poor medical condition due to their eating disorder may be put in a cardiac unit for an indefinite amount of time until a program space opens up. This can make the waitlist for others even longer.

Langman experienced such difficulty gaining access to a program.

“After knowing of several people who have died because of their eating disorders, the last thing I needed was to prove that I was sick,” Langman said.