This article has been amended since first posting.
Bowinn Ma remembers vividly the shame and silence that came with a secret eating disorder.
The stigma was so great that until two years ago, Ma – the MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale – hadn’t told anybody, including those she’s closest to, she'd had an eating disorder as a young adult.
“It’s an illness that really lives in silence,” she said.
Even when Ma was first tapped by local volunteers on the North Shore to help recognize one of the first eating disorder awareness weeks, “I didn’t talk about my experiences,” said Ma. “I was terrified of becoming known as that MLA with an eating disorder.”
Since she went public in 2019, Ma said she’s had many people contact her to confide their own struggles.
Some have never told anyone before, afraid of being considered at fault, or guilty of moral weakness.
Eating disorders revolve around a preoccupation with food, body image, weight, and appearance and can include clinical diagnoses such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa as well as disordered eating in general, which can include excessive exercising or fasting.
But they are also complex illnesses, that may have little to do with what a person looks like or how much they weigh.
"Eating disorders as a mental illness, very, very rarely exist in isolation," says Ma. "There are often other underlying challenges that people are facing as well."
In her own case, Ma says at the time she was dealing with depression. "I have absolutely no doubt those challenges were related."
Ma said at the time she was also under an incredible amount of pressure, and felt the need to have control over something in her life.
For some, the isolation that comes with an eating disorder can be deadly. Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates for mental illness, with estimates ranging between five and 15 per cent.
Debbie Slattery is a North Vancouver resident who understands those fears only too well.
Fifteen years ago, a loved one of Slattery’s suffered from an eating disorder as a teen.
“At that time, there were essentially no services at all,” she said.
The loved one got help through a hospital-based program and a compassionate family doctor, but found herself struggling with long-term support. “Because of that, her illness lasted a long time,” said Slattery. “She was essentially on her own.”
Through friends of friends, Slattery connected with the women who would eventually go on to found the Vancouver-based Looking Glass Foundation, dedicated to providing support for people who live with disordered eating.
“They just walked along with me for 10 years,” she said.
While Slattery’s loved one, now an adult, has fully recovered from her eating disorder, many other people still struggle.
The pandemic has added a layer of complexity to that.
When the outside world seems out-of-control as it has to many during surges of COVID-19, focusing on things like diet and exercise can be one way people try to get that control back.
Faced with increased COVID-19 restrictions, some people may not have found grocery shopping more stressful.
For those attempting to seek help, therapists weren’t available to meet in person.
“Pre-COVID there were a huge lack of resources,” says Susan Climie, executive director of the Look Glass Foundation. “During COVID, they were withdrawn.”
Negotiating the next phase of going back to school and work face-to-face can also create anxiety – which can further fuel disordered eating.
Recently, the Ministry of Mental Health stepped up with an announcement of approximately $6.6 million to go toward supports for people experiencing disordered eating. Much of that will go to fund new health authority positions. About $530,000 of that funding will also go to help the Looking Glass Foundation provide more peer support over the next three years, including virtual support.
Peer support can be crucial, said Climie, adding people can join the Looking Glass forums anonymously online. Frequently it’s the first time someone has acknowledged they have a problem, she said, and can speak to others who’ve walked the path before them.
“It can be a safe place just to begin to talk about what they’re struggling with.”