Toronto mother and nutritionist Lianne Phillipson decided to speak up about her teenage daughter’s mental health struggles because she wanted other families to know they are not alone.
“This is not easy to talk about and it’s not easy to put yourself out there … But I think it’s incredibly important to let others know, because this is what I think will change the stigma around this,” she said.
Phillipson is not certain the COVID-19 pandemic caused her daughter’s mental health struggles, but she said she has no doubt it “exacerbated the situation.”
Her daughter was an active, social 15-year-old who loved Karate, volunteered and worked at the dojo. She had also joined a swim team and field hockey team. In the fall, she began Grade 10 in a new school. Then, a few months later, the Ontario government shut down all schools in the province for in-class learning.
“I can remember her doing her karate class at home on Zoom and it ended up getting to a point where she just said, ‘I just can’t do it anymore, I just I can’t do it looking at a screen,’ … I think that was the biggest impact because it was such a place of community, a place of belonging for her for sure,” Phillipson recalled.
Phillipson said her daughter hardly had time to connect with friends at her new school when she was forced to learn remotely.
She began to notice signs at home that something was wrong.
“She couldn’t put it into words. And of course, mom, overactive brain, worrying what happened? … Was there a particular trigger to what I’m seeing as being different? And so I think it was probably a couple of weeks later that we found that she had moved into self-harm. So that was very concerning and hard to hard to understand,” she said.
The family sought support for their daughter.
“I’m in the health field. I talk about mental health. I talk about the right foods to eat. I talk about how you can support yourself. And it was just so overwhelming. You know, no amount of blueberries or dark chocolate or avocado was seemingly going to help this,” she said.
“It was just a whole new learning curve of ‘Where do we get support, who do we go to, who do we talk to?’ And I have not stopped advocating, asking questions, contacting different health-care providers.”
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Eventually Phillipson’s daughter began to resist eating at home.
“My daughter who is not eating and who clearly is losing weight, who is not feeling well, who’s had constant headaches … such a huge change in how she was,” said Phillipson.
She was admitted to The Hospital for Sick Children and diagnosed as having an eating disorder.
“A lot of use of social media and being isolated and online and seeing a lot of imagery that focuses on body image and preoccupation with food and exercise — all of these things for kids who might be predisposed to being highly sensitive to all of these changes are all possible contributing factors as to why we’ve seen this really marked increase in the number of kids presenting with eating disorders,” explained Chris Bartha, the executive director of the Brain and Mental Health Program at SickKids.
“I think it’s yet to be determined through research and investigation actually how this noticeable increase in eating disorders suddenly happened a number of months into the pandemic, but it’s definitely a phenomenon that’s being reported here at SickKids, provincially, nationally. It’s being seen actually across the world,” said Bartha.
SickKids released a colour-coded infographic in the spring showing how eating disorder admissions, psychiatry admissions, emergency department mental health crisis visits and urgent care mental health visits all have increased from July 2020 to March 2021.
“There is a SickKids-led study here and it’s a survey study and their impression is that it’s the social isolation that’s really impacting children and youth. I think many aspects of a child’s life have been disrupted,” explained Dr. Suneeta Monga, associate psychiatrist-in-chief at SickKids.
In February, SickKids released troubling results of a survey showing 70 per cent of children and youth ages six to 18 experienced harm to their mental health during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. The study found children and youth experienced similar overall mental health impacts no matter their clinical history.
“They no longer have graduations or other milestones to look forward to. They don’t have access to arenas, like sports teams to participate in, they don’t see their friends days on end. And I think these milestones are really important for children and youth and they’ve been disrupted,” said Monga.
Last month, Phillipson once again admitted her daughter to hospital after she expressed suicidal thoughts.
“A lot more more isolation, a lot more just not not wanting to do much for a kid that would get herself up and work out and take the dog for a walk. And just more and more overwhelming feelings … to the point of very scary suicide ideation,” she said.
Phillipson said she fears for her daughter’s health and wellbeing. She has taken a course to help understand and support her daughter through her journey.
“As much as I would just love to wrap her in my arms and just keep her and hold her tight and keep her safe from herself, from her own thoughts, from this wheel that I can only imagine is going all the time, I can’t. I can only facilitate and get her help, be supportive, be open, validate her.”