By Marco Sasso

From the outside, the three-story home commuters first see when they hike out of Spadina Station’s underground exit is anything but spectacular. It’s hidden behind four lanes of traffic, two naked trees and an electrical pole. And maybe that’s the point. 

Since 1996, Sheena’s Place has provided support to individuals affected by eating disorders, offering an array of free group counselling programs. The organization prides itself in its ability to treat service users like regular people — not hospital patients. There are no feeding tubes here. Clients don’t need to hand the receptionist their health card. Once clients sign up online, they are free to brew a cup of coffee in the kitchen, step into their assigned meeting room — basically a living room with lounge chairs — and learn the keys to recovery in a group counselling session facilitated by a licensed mental health professional. 

“I left an hour later, and I finally felt understood,” Ella Van Beers, a former Sheena’s Place client, recalled over Zoom during the organization’s virtual gala in November. “For the first time, I realized I wasn’t alone, and all of these experiences and behaviours that I had weren’t a fault of mine. They were an eating disorder.”  

An inside look at Sheena’s Place, located just steps away from Spadina Station (Sheena’s Place/T•).

But does Sheena’s Place work in the absence of fireplaces, lounge chairs and fresh coffee? The answer, a year later, is a qualified yes – in fact the pandemic has opened new opportunities. After a two-week reset when Premier Doug Ford locked down the province last March, program manager Kelsey Johnston and outreach coordinator Kaitlyn Axelrod launched a pilot program for Zoom counselling services in April. 

Should clients keep their cameras on or off? Muted or unmuted? How would they run art therapy sessions? 

Answers to the first two: keep the cameras on and stay unmuted. They mailed out art supplies — clay jars, paint, ornaments, old magazines — to group members to make virtual art therapy work. 

“It was probably scary for them [clients] and it was new for us, but it’s turned out really well,” Johnston says. 

“There’s a lot of trust,” Axelrod says. “You can feel the support from other people, even if they’re using Zoom reactions. I didn’t think that it was possible to feel that energy from other people online. Until I did.”

 Ary Maharaj is a qualifying psychotherapist who co-facilitates Sheena’s Place’s virtual BIPOC (Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour) support group. In the sessions he runs, no one sits still. To compensate for the lack of face-to-face interaction, service users mime emojis. They wave. They high-five the camera. They latch their hands onto their hearts when a member shares something profound. 

No one’s ever idle, either. When one group member speaks, others populate the chat with a mountain of URLs to books and podcasts that have helped them. “It’s not something you have to write down on a piece of paper or write down on your phone to take home and then potentially not open,” Maharaj says. “You’re getting in real time a link to be able to explore or open up after group.” 

Maharaj, who also works as an outreach and education coordinator for the National Eating Disorder Information Centre (NEDIC), says eating disorder support via chat has gained prominence across the country during the pandemic. Out of the 609 Canadians who used NEDIC’s free helpline during the first months of the pandemic, 418 used the organization’s instant chat, according to a study published in General Hospital Psychiatry.

Troubling, however, is the content of those messages. According to the study, the posts disclosed concerns about the lack of accessible treatment and the resurgence of eating disorder symptoms. “My doctor said I would be safer at home… safer from COVID maybe but not safer from myself,” wrote one participant.

The number of Canadians diagnosed with an eating disorder, at any given time, ranges from 750,000 to more than one million, according to research. Experts say wait-lists are often six months long for patients seeking treatment. And the pandemic has only amplified the Canadian mental health system’s flaws.  

 “Community based organizations are hustling so hard to fill gaps in a very broken system from the top down, where eating disorders and mental health, frankly, have never really been systematically funded from federal and provincial authorities,” Maharaj says.

“I’m always worried that, like, who are we missing? Who are we leaving behind?”

After 25 years as the Medical Director of the Program for Eating Disorders at Toronto General Hospital, Dr. Blake Woodside says he knows discrimination when he sees it. In this audio clip, he discusses three of the most significant barriers facing individuals suffering from an eating disorder when they first seek treatment.

Sheena’s Place’s group programs usually run for ten weeks over a semester. During the final semester of 2020, the organization ran 21 counselling groups for bodies of all sizes and abilities. The groups ran at full capacity. And since October, Sheena’s Place has served over 500 participants from across Ontario.

But Johnston didn’t need a pandemic to tell her there’s demand for mental health services outside of Toronto. She grew up in Lanark, west of Ottawa, pop. 900.

“There weren’t options,” Johnston says. “There weren’t specialized programs. There was a doctor and one small hospital half an hour away.”

Johnston says the coming spring semester will be the largest in the organization’s history. And when the pandemic is over, Sheena’s Place will switch to a hybrid counseling model: while some jot down notes while sitting in a circle, others will be journaling from home in pinstripe pajamas. 

“Hearing from people who are sharing that it’s really helpful for them and they wouldn’t be able to access groups otherwise, it makes it clear that this is a really important strategy for providing services,” Johnston says.

“I’ve seen so much resilience in our community despite the fact that they’re having a hard time. They’re showing up for themselves. They’re showing up for each other. They’re providing support to each other and they’re seeking help for themselves. And that often takes a lot of courage and effort.”

“I am continuously reminded of the strength of the members of our community.”