About Hilary Thomson

I am a journalist and writer based in Kemptville, Ontario. I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 16 and the past 15 years has been a whirlwind of hospital admissions and treatment attempts. I have been in steady recovery now for three years and while I don’t consider myself fully recovered; I am definitely on my way.

“Lead by example” – How to support someone with an Eating Disorder

It is not easy to support someone with an Eating Disorder.

Kirk Mason was the partner of Michelle Stewart, the former head of communications for the B.C. Ministry of Health, who suffered from a devastating Eating Disorder for 32 years before it eventually claimed her life in 2014.

Mason met Stewart when she was in her mid 30s and had already been living with an Eating Disorder for 17 years. It wasn’t until they had been living together for four months that Michelle sat him down one day and told him about her history. “She said I completely understand if you don’t want to be with me, if you want to walk away from this,” Mason remembers.

But Mason didn’t want to walk away. He started educating himself about Eating Disorders and how to support Stewart as best he could. He even started going to a support group in Victoria for caregivers of people with Eating Disorders. He says it was shocking for many people in the group, who were parents of teens with Eating Disorders, to hear the story about a grown woman who was still struggling with her Eating Disorder after so many years.

Mason supported Stewart through many emergency room visits and a short stay in an inpatient treatment program but nothing seemed to be able to shake the illness that was deeply ingrained in her life. Mason says Stewart was very good at making it seem like everything was going well.  “Everyone thought she was quite normal,” Mason remembers. He says her position at the Ministry of Health was sometimes difficult for her because she had to address files of people with Eating Disorders while keeping her own secret alive. “Cases of people with anorexia and bulimia would be put right on her desk,” Mason says. “There were some really tough times for her.”

Mason says he sometimes wishes he had been more upfront with Stewart about her Eating Disorder. He says he always avoided her triggers and they never got into arguments about her illness. “I became complacent,” he says. “I wish I had been more communicative with her, more involved.”

That being said Mason stayed by her side, a constant support through her diagnosis with end stage renal disease and eventual death. He says it was important to him to remain committed to Stewart and show her kindness, compassion and understanding both in her illness and end of life. “It’s something I never thought I would experience but I am glad I did because it opened my eyes,” Mason says.

Stewart’s older sister Karen Flello also played a key role in supporting her throughout her long battle with her Eating Disorder. Flello remembers Stewart first exhibiting signs of an Eating Disorder at 16 in the 1980s when very few healthcare professionals knew how to treat the illness. “We were given a lot of bad advice,” she remembers. “It completely ignored the root causes and biological connections.”

There is not doubt that supporting her sister through over three decades of an Eating Disorder was hard for Flello. All she ever wanted was for her to see how smart, loved and worthy she was. Flello said she had to realize that she was not to blame for not being able to heal her sister’s Eating Disorder. All she could do was focus her energy on being there for her when her illness would let her accept help. “It’s no different than if the person has a physical illness that you can’t cure,” she says.

Flello says if she could give any advice to people supporting a loved one through an Eating Disorder it would be to educate yourself, talk as openly about it as possible and encourage them to seek treatment early. She also says it is extremely important to set boundaries and make sure you are creating your own practice of mindful self compassion. “Whenever things got bad I went to counselling,” she says. “I needed to know how to cope.”

Mason agrees that educating yourself as a caregiver is key to being able to adequately support someone with an Eating Disorder. The desire to be thin is just scratching the surface when it comes to these complex illnesses. Mason says every part of Stewart knew that what she was doing was dangerous and that it would most likely eventually claim her life. “For her it was all about control,” he says.

Mason also encourages caregivers to seek support for themselves. Whether that be through a support group, individual counselling or family and friends. This is something that Stewart herself talked about in her blog, where she documented the end of her life. “Remember and acknowledge your own need for a helping hand and don’t be afraid to reach out,” she wrote in a post on December 5, 2013. “You will lead by the example of your own willingness to acknowledge there is no prize for suffering alone.”

“Lead by example” – How to support someone with an Eating Disorder2020-07-08T11:23:17-04:00

The lack of mental health services across Canada is real

In an article published in the Globe and Mail earlier this year, journalist Erin Anderssen explored the lack of psychiatrists across the country, particularly in small and remote areas. According to the Globe’s analysis half of all Canadians live in parts of the country where the number of psychiatrists fall below the ratio recommended by the Canadian Psychiatric Association and 2.3 million Canadians live in areas with no permanent psychiatrist at all.

The article did a great job outlining the areas in Canada that are most underserved by the psychiatric community. While the gap lies mostly in small, remote and northern communities it does note that there are exceptions to this rule. For example, Brampton, one of the fastest growing and youngest communities in Canada, is extremely lacking in services. The city has about one psychiatrist for every 24,000 people, which is one of the worst ratios in the country.

As someone who has been struggling with an Eating Disorder for over a decade, I have seen this gap in the mental healthcare system first-hand. I have been put on many types of medication over the years meant to try and help me with my anxiety and Eating Disorder. Usually medication changes would come when I was in residential treatment or hospitalized in an inpatient setting. In those situations, I would have access to a psychiatrist who would give me a prescription based on their assessment of my needs.

However, once I was out of an inpatient setting it always fell to my family doctor to manage my medication, something that was clearly out of her wheelhouse. When I decided that my current prescription wasn’t working for me anymore, I did the responsible thing and asked for her help to either ween off the medication or find something that would work better. I could tell that she didn’t feel like she had the expertise to make recommendations, yet she also had nowhere to refer me to where I could get specialized help.

I live in Kemptville, just outside Ottawa and go into the city every week to get specialized treatment for my Eating Disorder. However, even with the roughly 20-30 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Ottawa, on the higher end of the spectrum, my doctor still wasn’t able to refer me to someone who could help. I ended up doing some research myself and basically winning the lottery in finding a psychiatrist in Brockville who agreed to see me. Even so I waited about three months for an appointment.

Unfortunately, it is not just outpatient services that are lacking in Ontario, specifically in the world of Eating Disorder treatment. Two of the most well-respected treatment centres for Eating Disorders in Canada at The Ottawa Hospital (TOH) and Toronto General Hospital (TGH) are currently sharing a psychiatrist. Dr. Geneviève Proulx splits her time between the two programs, which makes having access to her difficult for even the most acute patients. TGH used to have five Eating Disorder specific psychiatrists on staff, all of whom left the program when it underwent restructuring last year. Both TOH and TGH have had to cut valuable therapy groups in their programs because of a lack of qualified staff.

We need more specialized care in this country for those suffering from mental illness. We live in a society that is slowly accepting the fact that mental health is just as important as physical health and the services available need to catch up.  The system is broken and we need to train and recruit young, forward-thinking doctors into the field of psychiatry. Whether it be ensuring that psychiatrists are paid the same as their counterparts or shaking up the way they see patients, it is important for the health of our country that we take this issue seriously. The stigma around mental health is melting away and the field of psychiatry needs to catch up and change with the times. It is important for the future health and well-being of the country.

Check out NIED’s letter advocating for change here. You can also do your part by writing to your provincial Health Ombudsman about the need for more psychiatrists in your area.

The lack of mental health services across Canada is real2020-07-13T15:21:56-04:00

I am so glad you are here!

Firstly, let me introduce myself. My name is Hilary Thomson and I am a journalist and writer based in Kemptville, Ontario. I was diagnosed with anorexia when I was 16 and the past 15 years has been a whirlwind of hospital admissions and treatment attempts. I have been in steady recovery now for three years and while I don’t consider myself fully recovered; I am definitely on my way.

So, what am I doing here? Having struggled with my mental and physical health for so long I am passionate about raising awareness for Eating Disorders and helping others on their recovery journey. I have known about NIED ever since they launched in 2012 and always felt that one day I wanted to get involved. I started out on NIED’s education committee, helping to organize symposiums, but I soon got the opportunity to get involved with their communications team. My training is in journalism, so it felt like a perfect fit.

I am so excited to have this platform to further NIED’s mission to provide access to educational, informational, and recovery-oriented resources related to the treatment and prevention of eating disorders in Canada. The goal of this blog is to provide engaging and well-researched content geared towards people with Eating Disorders, their caregivers and healthcare professionals. It will include everything from useful recovery tips to interviews with people with Eating Disorders from diverse backgrounds, knowledgeable Eating Disorder treatment professionals and advocates. The goal is to represent the reality of Eating Disorders and treatment in Canada and provide a platform for insightful perspectives and conversations.

NIED is thrilled to be launching this blog on World Eating Disorders Action Day, an initiative that unites activists across the globe to expand global awareness of Eating Disorders. There are roughly 1 million people struggling with Eating Disorders in Canada alone right now, many of whom are suffering silently and without proper support or treatment. Eating Disorders thrive in isolation and the more people speak out about their experience the more likely we are to see change. On this day of action we are asking you to consider telling your story. If you are not sure how we have prepared a document which outlines how to tell your story responsibly, without putting you or anyone else at risk. You can download the pdf here.

We would love to see this blog morph and grow into something that is driven by our community. We want this to be a welcoming and informative space for anyone looking for support in their own recovery or help in supporting a loved one or patient/client. We are extremely interested in hearing what you would like to see. Is there a topic you want us to cover? A person you would like to see interviewed? Do you want a platform to help tell your own story? We would love to help.

Contact us here and let us know what you think. What do you think is missing from the Eating Disorder recovery space?

I am so glad you are here!2020-06-01T09:30:24-04:00