Students Emphasize Necessity of Specialized Eating Disorder Treatment in Combatting Mental Health Crisis

Content warning: discussion of eating disorders

In September, McGill Student Services drastically reduced many of the resources allocated toward the  Eating Disorder Program (EDP) without informing students. The story was leaked to the CBC after the university placed the EDP under review and drastically restructured it.  In response to mass upset, Martine Gauthier, Head of Student Services, issued an explanatory statement as to why these cuts were made, and detailed how McGill plans to help students suffering from eating disorders without a specialized program.

“Student mental health needs have expressed themselves as a 57% increase in demand for counselling services over the last three years.” Gauthier wrote. “EDP was the only treatment program we offered [specifically for students with eating disorders], even though the range of mental illness and disorders is substantial.”

The program, which remains advertised on the McGill website, included access to a nutritionist and meal planning, as well as individual and group therapy. Gauthier specified that Student Services will be implementing a model of “shared responsibility,” meaning that students will be connected with McGill Counselling and Psychiatric services, as well as services within the Montreal community – though it is not specified which – to treat their disorders. This, she says, will hopefully better allocate resources to the students who need support, as opposed to the specialized program that existed before.

According to Statistics Canada, 1.5% of Canadian women ages 15-24 report having been diagnosed with an eating disorder, putting university students especially at-risk. The results of a study at Queen’s University showed that 5% of students are struggling with eating disorders, and 50% want to lose weight. Many educational institutions across Canada feel they must act accordingly, and several, including Concordia, The University of British Columbia, and the University of Western Ontario, provide vast amounts of information pertaining to eating disorders on their websites, including warning signs, symptoms, and how to seek support. Despite the accessibility of this information, the majority of Canadian universities lack specialized programs to support students affected by eating disorders.

Comparatively, the list of resources McGill provides does not include any explicit information: only the names of community partners, and  a list of recommended books.There is a worry that this may limit accessibility for students who remain unsure on how to classify what they’re going through.

Reflecting back, the [program] at McGill operated the best they could with the resources they had…A lot of people can find value in the services they had to offer, but alternatively, a lot of other people may find that the resources [were not] tailored or personalized enough.

Ella Amir, Executive Director of AMI-Quebec, a mental health organization, worries that without a specialized program, students with this specific type of illness will slip through the cracks. “Eating disorders are complex and may include anxiety and depression,” Amir explained in an email. “The new structure appears to be lumping different conditions together, which may end up not providing the proper care for some.”

A McGill student who spoke on the condition of anonymity shared that they actually never got into the Eating Disorder Program, despite a self-identified need for specific treatment, because of the length of the wait list. They were referred to Mental Health Services nearly four years ago.

Logan Hall, a U4 Arts student, has had a frustrating experience with McGill Mental Health Services. Though never placed in the Eating Disorder Program at McGill, he suffered from anorexia between the age of twelve and thirteen. He says that the psychiatrist he saw at McGill Mental Health from Fall 2015 to Winter 2017 helped him “through the worst parts of [his] depression, and helped [him] make the decision to take a semester off, which saved and eventually revitalized [his] academic trajectory.”

Last winter semester, Hall’s psychiatrist was let go from Mental Health Services for an “administrative indiscretion.” He was given no further explanation, and though he “really likes” his new psychiatrist, the transition was difficult. Hall thinks that “it’s a travesty that funding is being cut for the Eating Disorder Program. In a world that is overwhelmingly digital, and in a culture that idealizes body types that, for most people, are virtually unattainable, eating disorder treatment is that much more vital.” He maintained that if he could experience “such an acute disorder at such a young age, it is inevitable that eating disorders at McGill are an extremely relevant problem.” Hall contends that he was “lucky enough to receive specialized treatment at an age where [his] brain was still rapidly developing and [his] behaviours were still fairly ephemeral,” but “at the college age, this is less the case, which makes specialized treatment that much more important.”

According to a student who used services offered by EDP in the past two years, “reflecting back, the [program] at McGill operated the best they could with the resources they had…A lot of people can find value in the services they had to offer, but alternatively, a lot of other people may find that the resources [were not] tailored or personalized enough.” The student held that “McGill [was] one of the few universities in Canada that even [had] an eating disorder program to begin with…there definitely should be more of a push to give more resources to help students [suffering from eating disorders].”

A Queen’s University student who wished to remain anonymous stated: “Having struggled with an eating disorder for years I can confidently say that having access to specialized eating disorder services has literally saved my life. This disease is so overpowering and consuming and I would surely not be where I am today without specialized help.” Though this individual has never used the mental health services at Queen’s, but is registered for academic accommodations at the recommendation of her mental health professionals, she maintains the necessity of specialized care for students with eating disorders on campuses. “I’m fortunate enough to receive private care. However, not everyone is so lucky. Cutting McGill’s Eating Disorder Program would be a huge disservice to those struggling with this disease and I hope the school reconsiders their decision,” she maintained.

McGill Counselling services will continue to be available to all students struggling with mental illness, including eating disorders. As well, McGill Psychiatric services are open to all, though a referral from a general practitioner is required  to get an appointment. Previously cancelled group therapy sessions will start up again in Winter Semester. “[This] is a good thing,” said a student who wishes to remain anonymous. “But what about the students who need [group therapy] now?”

McGill may like to find out why there is such an increase in anxiety and depression; digging into the root causes may suggest other interventions…It may not be the role of the current mental health services but someone may be interested to explore it further.

In her statement, Gauthier specified that McGill Student Services will be increasing their efforts in awareness and prevention, areas she claims students are asking for more assistance in. There is a concern that this may not be enough, and that perhaps McGill should be doing research as to what is causing the substantial spike in student mental illness.

“McGill may like to find out why there is such an increase in anxiety and depression; digging into the root causes may suggest other interventions, this may be real prevention,” Amir suggests. “It may not be the role of the current mental health services but someone may be interested to explore it further.”

In response to voiced concerns, Vera Romano, Head of Counselling Services, assured the McGill community that there is no need to worry. “Students will continue to have access to a full array of support services… the Student Service team has been supporting this student population for years and will continue to do so,” Romano explained. “Their well-being is of paramount importance to us all.”

Within McGill, resources for those struggling with eating disorders include Counselling and Psychiatric services, and the Office for Students with Disabilities. Externally, organizations ANEB Quebec, NEDIC helpline, Clinique BACA, and CBT Clinic have specialized programs for help with eating disorders.

 

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