Last fall, when the wait for treatment at an eating-disorder program operated by the Women's Health Clinic was as long as 18 months, a private facility that boards patients in Brandon was sitting empty.
And while there are no huge waits to get into either the in-patient or outpatient eating-disorder programs at Health Sciences Centre, HSC does not accommodate patients who are vegan or vegetarian. It requires that they eat meat.
That's causing concern for at least one Winnipeg family who contacted the Free Press recently, concerned about getting help for their vegan daughter, who is in her early 20s.
The woman's mom said the Women's Health Clinic told her last July the earliest her daughter could enrol in the Provincial Eating Disorders Prevention and Recovery Program is this coming September.
She said her daughter was "refused" entry to HSC's in-patient eating-disorder program -- the only publicly funded in-patient program in the province -- because her daughter is vegan.
"You can smoke, but you'll be treated for cancer," said the woman, who asked her name not be used. "But they won't treat my daughter because she won't eat meat."
The Winnipeg mom said she's so worried about her daughter's condition, she is looking at enrolling her in the privately run Westwind Eating Disorder Recovery Centre in Brandon. It charges $1,875 a week. It also accepts patients who are vegetarian or vegan.
Bryan Gusdal, Westwind's director, said his facility seldom has a waiting list. It recently reduced the number of beds it operates to five from eight because of a lack of patients. At one point last fall, it had no patients at all.
"This is ironic. We have a waiting list in Winnipeg, but we were struggling to fill beds last fall," he said.
Westwind has operated since 1998. It takes clients both on an outpatient and in-patient basis. It has accepted patients from the United States and across Canada.
As of Monday, it had three Winnipeg-based patients staying there, including one who is vegetarian. In a few weeks, the Brandon facility is set to take in a young woman from the city who is vegan. Since Manitoba does not fund the clinic, patients must pay the full cost.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia have the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses, with 10 to 20 per cent of sufferers eventually dying from complications.
Dr. Louis Ludwig, medical director of the adult eating-disorders program at HSC, said the hospital requires patients to eat animal proteins because research shows vegetarian patients who have eating disorders "use their vegetarianism in the service of their eating disorder."
"It's part of the illness," he said in an interview.
Ludwig said it's also "logistically difficult" for the hospital to provide a balanced vegetarian diet. He said, though, it does try to accommodate people who cannot eat certain foods for religious reasons.
The Winnipeg mom said her daughter's condition is deteriorating. It took her daughter two years to admit she needed help. And since the summer, she's been ready to receive it.
"I have attempted to access psychiatric services and counselling for my daughter through the (Winnipeg Regional Health Authority). There are no psychiatrists that take individual patients, and counselling is only provided by the WRHA on a short-term basis, meaning six sessions," she said.
The province recently provided the Women's Health Clinic with additional administrative support, which is expected to allow staff more time to work with clients and reduce wait times.
Health Minister Theresa Oswald said her department has not yet considered negotiating a contract for service with the Westwind centre because it feels there are enough beds for eating-disorder patients at HSC.
Most demand is for outpatient programming, she said. "There are some situations for which an in-patient -- a bed -- scenario is very appropriate. There are other situations where it wouldn't really be appropriate at all."
Ludwig said the wait for an in-patient bed at HSC is about two months, although space can be found immediately in the hospital for emergency cases. In the outpatient program, clients eat the majority of their meals at the hospital, but do not stay overnight.