A Lake Country health clinic is working hard to reverse a concerning pandemic trend: a surge in eating disorders among youth.
And thanks to $14,000 in funding from the Okanagan Learning Foundation, the Healthy Essentials Clinic will be able to offer day treatment programs that have been found to dramatically improve the recovery rate for youth with disordered eating.
That’s according to Christina Camilleri, the clinic’s founder and director, which opened doors in Winfield in June 2019. Camilleri has worked in the eating disorder field for 30 years and has been the coordinator for past eating disorder programs in Vernon and Kelowna.
Healthy Essentials provides care for a wide range of illnesses, including autism, cancer and substance use issues. They hold clinical pilates sessions to help people recovering from vehicle accidents and have a physiotherapist who specializes in supporting people recovering from breast cancer, to name a few of their diverse list of care programs.
“We are what you would call a wrap-around clinic for mental health and health care issues,” said Camilleri.
February 1 to 7 was Eating Disorder Awareness Week, and to mark the occasion, Camilleri hopes to inform people about an issue that’s been exacerbated by COVID-19.
“The number of 10-, 11- and 12-year-olds that have been referred for disordered eating has skyrocketed. I have not seen it this dramatic in the 30 years that I’ve worked in the field,” she said. “The number of young people that have really struggled with the isolation, with having to do school online, having to wear masks, the rise in anxiety and maladaptive coping using restrictive eating, has risen across Canada.”
Experts call it a “shadow pandemic,” and it’s affecting males as well as females. Young people are feeling more isolated and are spending more time on social media during the pandemic, and anxiety is at an all-time high — all factors that have led to the spike in eating disorders, says Camilleri.
Something Camilleri hopes Canadians will learn to understand is that an eating disorder is not a choice; it’s an illness, and one to be taken seriously.
“The mortality rate is second only to overdose,” she said.
Parents can often be at a loss for what to do if they suspect their child is developing an eating disorder. Camilleri’s advice is to not hesitate to bring concerns to a general practitioner or a paediatrician.
“If they’ve noticed any sudden changes in their character or their personality, their sleep patterns, that’s when they should certainly go and meet with their general practitioner and express their concerns,” she said. “Never be afraid to seek medical consultation.”
It is through a consultation with a GP that children are referred to clinics like Healthy Essentials, where they are matched with the most appropriate clinician for them, whether that’s a counsellor, a social worker, a dietician or a paediatrician.
Barb Andreen, who sits on Healthy Essentials’ advisory board, was in this position a few years ago after her daughter spent seven months in hospital, diagnosed with a severe eating disorder. She had to go to a hospital in Washington state to find the appropriate care for her.
It was while transitioning back home and trying to set up a therapist and support for her daughter that Andreen started working with Camilleri, who at the time was working out of her home but had a vision for a clinic that resembled a lot of successful U.S. models.
“It made a huge difference for me when we were transitioning to coming back home,” she said. “It would have been nerve-racking to have invested all that time and money to get this treatment and then to come home and there was no one who could offer that same level of support.”
Stephanie Hewson, executive director for the Okanagan Learning Foundation, said the charitable organization was thrilled to be able to offer $14,000 in support to the clinic.
“It’s our single largest donation to date so we’re very excited,” Hewson said. “We’ve worked with Christina in the past with some other funding and the results speak for themselves.”
The funding will provide for a 12-week day treatment program for youth and parents, something Camilleri calls “a dream come true.”
But she would now like to see local MPs and MLAs step up and support the day treatment program, which — according to surveys of youth and parents who took part in a pilot — makes for a dramatically faster recovery period for people with eating disorders.
She’d like to be able to offer the program three to four times a year, and to adults as well as children, but that’s not possible with current funding levels.
For more information about the Healthy Essentials Clinic, visit healthyessentialsclinic.ca.