Fears grow as wait lists for eating disorder treatments lengthen

WATCH: Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, are not only far more common than most of us realize, there is very little treatment.  Vassy Kapelos has the first in a two-part series.

When 23-year-old Laura Rostron looks in the mirror, she doesn’t see what everyone else does.

“No matter how many times I looked, no matter how many people would tell me that I looked ill, I just couldn’t see it,” she said. “One moment I look in the mirror and I think, ‘Oh I look huge.’ Next moment, ‘Oh I look normal.’ Next moment, finally, finally – I’m having that thought of, ‘Maybe I don’t look as good as I think, maybe I am a little too thin.’”

Rostron suffers from anorexia.

At one point, she would eat just four cubes of fruit in an entire day.

Story continues below advertisement

“There was a part of me that knew what I was doing was wrong, but some other force, some other driving force just completely taking over my body,” she said.

Rostron was eventually hospitalized.

After treatment she felt well enough to move to British Columbia for school, but there she relapsed.

“I wanted to feel invisible – so I started to restrict again,” she said.

WATCH: Laura Rostron explains what it’s like to live with an eating disorder and struggle for treatment.

Rostron came back to the hospital where she was first treated – but was faced with a months-long wait.

Unwilling and unable to wait, Rostron turned to what she says was the only remaining option – private treatment.

Story continues below advertisement

“To this point, it’s cost my parents $30,000 and counting. So, it’s very hard,” she said.

Rostron’s struggle to access treatment for an eating disorder isn’t unique.

The Standing Committee on the Status of Women in the House of Commons has been studying the issue of eating disorders in women and girls for the past year, with a report expected this fall.

Hundreds of pages of testimony given to the committee say the same thing: though eating disorders are the most lethal of all mental illnesses, access to treatment in Canada is abysmal and wait lists are too long – so long that some sufferers die waiting for treatment.

Testimony from Dr. Blake Woodside shows anorexia occurs in about 0.5 per cent of the population, while bulimia nervosa affects nearly 1 percent of the population. According to him, that means nearly half a million people in Canada suffer from either disorder.

Woodside says the mortality rate for anorexia nervosa is 10 per cent to 15 per cent, but actual rates per year are hard to determine because mental health causes are not often listed on death certificates.

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, between 2007 and 2011 there were 73 deaths reported to be due to eating disorders, 61 of which were women.

Story continues below advertisement

Wait times are also hard to establish because there isn’t a national database that tracks them.

At the country’s largest in-patient program at Toronto General Hospital, the wait is three to four months long, for a woman five feet five inches tall and weighing only 60 pounds.

READ MORE: Men struggling with eating disorders on the rise

Advocates say the wait elsewhere can be up to a year.

It’s a struggle Wendy Preskow is all too familiar with.

Preskow’s 29-year-old daughter Amy has struggled with eating disorders for half her life.

Hospital treatment hasn’t worked.

“One size fits no one. There is no affordable, warm, fuzzy place for her to go,” she said. “For somebody like Amy who told me two weeks ago, ‘I need help. I’m not ready to die.’ What do families like us do? I can’t just say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ There’s no such thing.”

WATCH: Wendy Preskow talks about her daughter’s eating disorder and how it compelled her to become an advocate.

Amy now lives with her parents.

Story continues below advertisement

“It has to be. It is what it is. It’s no different than cancer or any other disease. We’d be giving her the same attention and the same support,” she said.

Preskow’s frustration turned into action – she founded the National Initiative for Eating Disorders (NIED), which aims to increase awareness of eating disorders and lack of treatment in Canada.

Preskow hopes the committee’s study on eating disorders compels Ottawa to launch a national strategy to tackle the disease, but she’s worried about how long that would take.

“Changes in Canada take time, but really at the end of the day how many families have to lose someone? How many young people have to die?,” she said. “People die on the waiting lists. Eating disorders kill young women. Our fear is that yes, Amy could have one more purge, and she could die.”

This is the first of a two-part series on eating disorders in Canada. In part two of our series, airing Sept. 17, we’ll hear from the country’s leading experts on eating disorders – what the problem is, according to them, and what they hope the federal government will do to fix it.

Sponsored content