As everyone knows by now, the pandemic has been hard on teenagers’ mental health. And these uncertain circumstances have sometimes triggered an eating disorder. But what if they might also be the impetus for finding new solutions for helping out youth? That’s exactly what we are doing at Sainte-Justine, with funding from Bell Let’s Talk.
The idea arose from a crisis. Eating disorders had already reached epidemic proportions before COVID-19. But since the onset of lockdown measures in the spring of 2020, doctors’ offices have seen a surge in the number of emergency appointments in this regard.
In fact, the number of Quebec youth who need help for an eating disorder has doubled since March. Cases had been rising sharply in the past few years, especially among preteens, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the situation.
Many young people were left reeling this spring. They were at home with little to do, which meant more time to exercise and ‘eat healthy.’ In some cases, what may have started as a good intention developed into an eating disorder.
Dr. Danielle Taddeo
Although the day hospital launched a few years ago with the support of Bell Let’s Talk has temporarily been put on hold to comply with public health requirements, everyone at Sainte-Justine has shown remarkable creativity in their efforts to fill the crucial role it plays in the transition from hospitalization to outpatient care.
Sainte-Justine deals with 40% of hospital admissions for an eating disorder, including some of the most complex cases from across the province. It has been a leader in this area of pediatric medicine for 35 years. In response to the alarming trends of late, and backed by a $300,000 donation from Bell Let’s Talk, the team at Sainte-Justine is preparing to undertake an innovative pilot project. An intensive outpatient program for patients being treated for an eating disorder is about to open, in line with the realities of the pandemic. Over the long term, this program will make it easier for patients outside Montreal, who represent 75% of the cases seen at the hospital, to access the expertise at Sainte-Justine. The aim is to help as many youth as possible turn things around.
We want to take action in a committed, flexible way to meet patients’ needs, stop their condition from getting worse, reduce its duration and improve the overall prognosis.
Dr. Danielle Taddeo
Home is where most of the progress happens
Dr. Pierre-Olivier Nadeau, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-director of the Integrated Centre for Eating Disorders, is the other driving force behind this initiative. He points out that, for many young eating disorder patients whose physical and psychological well-being is not being seriously compromised by their condition, it is preferable to keep them at home, at school and in their community, while continuing to treat them and provide coaching to the people close to them. “It’s what we call a family approach,” says Dr. Nadeau. “It’s a relatively new strategy, but one with a proven track record in stopping the progression of the disorder and easing the transition back to normal life after a hospital stay. This helps reduce the risk of relapse.”
Recovery after a bout with an eating disorder in childhood or adolescence is a team effort. Parents, siblings, friends and even certain trusted adults at school are essential in helping youth rebuild their life and develop new and healthy lifestyle habits.
But the people in their network also need support and reassurance. That is why the program goes beyond direct patient care, which includes remote therapy, meal support and other activities designed to overcome isolation and anxiety, to provide family therapy and coaching.
Home and school are the places where youth actually eat. Even when a hospital stay is required, that’s usually not where they start to heal. That happens when they get back to their regular routine and gradually take control of certain aspects of their lives.
Dr. Pierre-Olivier Nadeau
There are those who may still require hospital treatment at some point for their eating disorder. Dr. Nadeau emphasizes that intensive outpatient treatment does not replace existing solutions.
This approach is intended to complement other services and can be adapted to suit the needs of each patient. This also ensures a degree of continuity in the overall treatment philosophy and the decisions made.
Dr. Pierre-Olivier Nadeau
As part of this continuum, and in an effort to better guide healthcare professionals and local school services, the program will also make useful information available online, along with a series of virtual learning sessions about eating disorder recovery.
Assessment is vital to driving innovation, and this program is no exception. For each component of the program, patients and families will be asked to provide their feedback. Clinical data, such as the length of hospital stays and the rate of readmission of discharged patients, will also be documented to gauge the overall impact of the program.
Bell Let’s Talk
We are extremely grateful to Bell Let’s Talk for their support.
It is a tremendous privilege for us to know we can count on a partner like Bell, whose philanthropic focus is on the field of mental health. With the support of Bell Let’s Talk, we have been able to rev up our efforts in recent years to better respond to the needs of hundreds of young people.