SSMU hosts its first annual National Eating Disorder Awareness Week

The McGill community observed National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, which runs Feb. 1-7, for the first time with the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) programming. Each day saw a different session related to eating disorders, including a workshop titled “Unboxing Fatphobia,” a discussion panel, and a mental wellness poetry reading put on in collaboration with McSWAY’s Poetry Collective.

Howard Steiger, the Eating Disorders program head at the Douglas Mental Health University Institute and a professor in the McGill Department of Psychiatry, believes that the week-long event is important for bringing awareness to a pervasive yet often misunderstood issue.

“In general, eating disorders are not very well understood by people but affect everyone either indirectly or directly,” Steiger said. “I think it’s a very admirable idea to have a specific moment to sensitize people to the suffering that eating disorders can cause. People have a lot of misunderstandings about what eating disorders represent, and the people that suffer them are sometimes misunderstood and stigmatized.”

SSMU Vice-President (VP) Student Life Sophia Esterle echoed Steiger’s sentiments about raising awareness. Her personal experiences motivated her to take a direct interest in the week of programming.

“Raising awareness is also incredibly important to me because, in my personal experience suffering from an eating disorder, I know how incredibly isolating and alienating this mental illness can be,” Esterle wrote in an email to The McGill Tribune. “The lack of awareness made it both personally hard to understand what I was going through and how to recover from it, but also how my peers reacted isolated me even more. Comments, behaviours, and attempted support showed [a clear] misunderstanding of what I was going through.”

Esterle is an advocate for eating disorder awareness and is responsible for creating the SSMU webpage on eating disorders, which lists various institutes, support groups, and other resources for those who are struggling. Esterle believes there is both a severe lack of resources at McGill and information about off-campus services, which she feels was exacerbated when McGill cancelled its eating disorder program in 2017. McGill justified its decision as one of financial necessity and argued that the program’s components had been reintegrated with other mental health services.

“Through the existence of this program, McGill did not only act as a resource, but also showed that this university and campus cared for its students, and specifically students going through eating disorders,” Esterle wrote. “Through this, [McGill] created more spaces and conversations around eating disorders. When it shut down, it seems that it did not only defund the program, but it shut down the conversation.”

Esterle hopes that SSMU’s recognition of National Eating Disorder Awareness Week will help spark further conversations about the condition.

“My general goal for this week is creating spaces for folks to talk about their experiences, spreading the resources that are available, addressing and highlighting the social [and] or cultural issues around body image, gym culture, attitude and portrayals of mental illnesses, [and] misunderstanding of what an eating disorder is, and showing people that they aren’t alone, that there is recovery, that there are others who have gone through it,” Esterle wrote.

Claire Schnurr, U1 psychology, attended some of SSMU’s programming, including Tuesday’s Discussion Panel on Eating Disorders/Disordered Eating. She expressed a similar conviction that McGill needs to do more to support eating disorder awareness year-round.

“I believe that McGill needs to improve [on] eating disorder awareness, but also upon mental health awareness in general,” Schnurr wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Instead of just one week per year that raises awareness, it needs to be a constant conversation.”

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