Content warning: discussion of eating disorders
When McGill Mental Health Services drastically scaled back its Eating Disorder Program (EDP) in September 2017, students who relied on its specialized services were forced to turn to a list of external (and sometimes pricy) resources on SSMU’s website.
In response to the lack of support and resources offered by McGill, SSMU hosted its first ever Eating Disorder Awareness Week from February 1-7, in conjunction with SSMU VP Student Life Sophia Esterle’s ongoing Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign. Through various events, SSMU aimed to raise awareness about the impacts of eating disorders on those afflicted, counteract harmful myths and stereotypes, and foster meaningful discussion on campus about eating disorders.
Events were held every evening including discussion groups where individuals could talk about their experiences, workshops on the socio-cultural components of eating disorders, as well as the complexities of fatphobia, a discussion panel, and a mental wellness poetry share with McSWAY.
Tuesday’s discussion panel was composed of McGill students and Jenna Jones, a social worker with the Douglas Mental Health University Institute. The Douglas is a psychiatric hospital affiliated with McGill that offers treatment services for a variety of mental health concerns, including specialized programs for eating disorders.
The discussion panel focused on some of the misconceptions and common questions that people have about eating disorders. The panelists addressed the differences between eating disorders and disordered eating: while both are harmful, diagnosed eating disorders affect an individual physically or mentally to the point where they cannot function in their daily life.
The panelists also emphasized that eating disorders and their origins are complex, and that the onset of eating disorders is often attributed to a “perfect storm” of biological, psychological, and sociocultural components. In addition, eating disorders are sometimes merely the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to an individual’s mental health struggles. They tend to be a coping mechanism for underlying issues that an individual has not addressed, including feelings of loneliness or emptiness, or other mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.
Mental Wellness Poetry Share
In contrast to the more formal discussion panel, McSWAY, a McGill club dedicated to providing a safe space for students to share performance poetry, closed out Eating Disorder Awareness Week on Thursday with a mental wellness poetry share. Numerous students presented their poetry relating to eating disorders, mental health, and a variety of other topics.
Eliza Prestley, incoming VP External for McSWAY, believes in the healing power that poetry can have. She expressed that, “Something that a lot of people like about poetry is hearing something that they’ve been feeling expressed in a different way, and being able to relate to someone else and think about those issues differently.”
According to Prestley, poetry shares are especially effective in creating a community where individuals can discuss mental health and other issues free of judgement, and often provide a “group healing” environment: “Everyone is tuned in to what the poet is saying and reacting to that. And I think there’s a kind of community that’s built out of that, that can help people navigate a lot of different issues and challenges that they may be having.”
eating disorders are sometimes merely the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to an individual’s mental health struggles.
Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign
Sophia Esterle, SSMU VP Student Life, used to her position in SSMU and existing advocacy on campus to lead this initiative. Nearly two years after the EDP was defunded, she felt that SSMU had to do more to advocate for students who struggle with eating disorders and disordered eating.
“It seems that it was not just the program that was defunded, but the entire conversation around eating disorders,” Esterle stated. “Every mental illness deserves to get this attention, but because of the defunding of the EDP, and my own recent recovery from an eating disorder, I’ve been determined to do more around it.”
Esterle is committed to using the momentum from this week to continue the discussion around eating disorders throughout the academic year. She is taking several steps to keep these efforts going, such as continuing the social media campaign, working on a potential provincial campaign, and creating a SSMU group that would develop more initiatives on campus to support those struggling with eating disorders.
“I ran for SSMU VP Student Life because I wanted to help create more structures and environments for support for students around mental health and illness,” she said. “I’m dedicated to using the next months I have left to continue doing so.”