Ontario Health Minister Christine Elliott had a close-up look Friday at a reality of the pandemic that has alarmed child and youth mental health experts: the sharp rise in eating disorders.
When Elliott and Michael Tibollo, associate minister of mental health and addictions, toured CHEO Friday prior to a funding announcement, there were more than twice as many admitted patients with severe eating disorders as the hospital has specialized beds to treat them.
CHEO currently has six dedicated beds for eating disorder patients, said Joanne Lowe, vice-president of mental health and addictions at the children’s hospital. On Friday, it had 14 severely ill eating disorder patients admitted. More than half of those medically fragile patients were in beds spread across the hospital, something that has been common throughout the pandemic as the number of patients in need of treatment for eating disorders has increased by 63 per cent, Lowe said.
“The pandemic has been very challenging for children and youth and the impact on their mental health has been particularly difficult,” she said.
Elliott was in Ottawa to formally announce increased funding for the treatment of children and youth with eating disorders, something previously announced in the province’s fall economic statement.
The province announced an immediate investment of $8.1 million to build capacity and deal with the increased demand for services to support specialized care for children and youth diagnosed with eating disorders. It also announced $11.1 million in annual funding specifically for eating disorders.
CHEO will receive $4.4 million to more than double its capacity to treat patients.
“Our government is expanding access to care so that more children and youth with eating disorders can receive specialized treatment, bringing hope and peace of mind to families,” said Elliott.
Lowe said the funding was recommended by the eating disorders COVID-19 recovery expert group that she co-chairs.
“We heard about the unprecedented need for eating disorder support across Ontario and we made recommendations.” She thanked the province for acting quickly.
The money will allow CHEO to more than double its capacity to respond to the needs of eating disorder patients, she said. In addition to more hospital beds, CHEO will create a new partial-hospitalization program that will help youth being supported for eating disorders transition from the hospital to home.
Lowe said the hospital’s goal is to be able to intervene sooner and prevent children and youth from having to be hospitalized.
The pandemic, she said, “has been particularly difficult for families who have experienced children needing to be admitted with health problems from eating disorders.”
Christopher Vallée, who spoke at the announcement Friday, was once one of those patients. The 23 year old is now recovered from an eating disorder he struggled with for six years.
“Early intervention is key, but long wait times mean many are suffering in silence. I have been there before and it is a dark place that nobody should experience,” he said. The expanded services, “will allow many to get the help they need and deserve faster.”
Vallée said the isolation of children and youth during the pandemic, when school has been cancelled for long periods, along with extra-curricular and other in-person activities, has likely contributed to the rise in eating disorders.