Preliminary results from a new research project focusing on supports for eating disorders in rural communities has found that at-risk individuals are often left waiting for at least a year before being matched up with a specialist that can diagnose and help treat a problem.

U-Links Centre for Community Based Research has partnered with student Sarah Moret and professor Dr. Naomi Nichols, both of Trent University, on the project.

Daniela Pagliaro, U-Links’ logistics coordinator, said this assignment had been on the organization’s radar for more than two years. The idea was brought forward by local resident Sandra Woods, a long-time volunteer with the National Initiative for Eating Disorders.

“She reached out to us and asked how individuals and families access information and support around eating disorders in rural Ontario, and we thought that was a very good question. We worked with her on a proposal back in 2019, and then tried to find a good match to take this on,” Pagliaro said. “We’re glad we waited, because Sarah and Dr. Nichols have been a tremendous fit.”

Moret, who is studying sociology with a specialization in health studies, opted to take the project on as her honours thesis. She has spent the past couple of months researching the issue, interviewing service providers and people who have experience living with eating disorders, and compiling her final report.

“The early things that have come up during her research is there’s a need for more specialized staff and programs for this sector; more education for all involved, so not just the person going through it, but their family, their supporters, and even the medical community. Those who specialize in eating disorders understand it, but many GPs don’t have that specialized training,” Pagliaro said. “Often, they either don’t understand the problem, or they just miss it completely.

“The other problem identified was lack of access to consultation services. There’s a major barrier in terms of response. When you live in a community like Haliburton County, you need to be referred to a specialist outside the community … there can be long delays of a year or more before any contact is made between the individual and services,” Pagliaro added.

Over the past 12 months, SickKids hospital in Toronto says it has seen a 35 per cent increase in admissions to its eating disorder program. Pagliaro said she’s seen reports that suggests the total number of cases Canada-wide has gone up by as much as 150 per cent.

Undiagnosed and untreated, many eating disorders can be fatal. Of all mental health disorders, Pagliaro said those centred around eating and body image have the highest mortality rate, at 20 per cent.

Moret will be presenting her findings at U-Links’ upcoming celebration of research event, being held virtually March 26. Pagliaro says there will be several recommendations brought forward on how to best address some of the issues being reported locally.

“This is something we need to fix. Right now, we don’t know if this issue is being identified in the systems we have in place. We had a chat with someone at [Haliburton Highlands] Health Services two years ago when we started the project, and we were told they don’t collect this specific info, so they couldn’t tell us how many people in this area have been referred to some kind of eating disorder service,” Pagliaro said.

“If you don’t have the information, how can we move forward? We need answers to these questions before we can decide what we’re going to do,” Pagliaro added. “This is a systemic problem, and the pandemic has just highlighted it even more. We know the rates are high for the general population, and it’s going to be true for here too.”