COVID-19 and an Epidemic of Eating Disorders

In so many ways, COVID-19 has turned our lives upside down, and the disruption continues. Casual – and annoying – talk about pandemic weight gain continues to swirl, thought the data on this tells a very mixed story. But something more serious is getting less attention – a sharp spike in eating disorders for young people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

An Explosion Among Teens

Psychologist Lisa Damour writes in the New York Times of explosive growth in eating disorders among teens:

“As a psychologist who cares for adolescents I am well aware of the prevalence of eating disorders among teenagers. Even still, I am stunned by how much worse the situation has become in the pandemic.”

A new study in Pediatrics puts numbers on this observation. Alana Otto and colleagues performed a chart review of patients 10 to 23 years old admitted to a children’s hospital for restrictive eating disorders before and during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Admissions more than doubled.

Remember that this was a time when people were avoiding hospitals if they could because of fears of coronavirus transmission.

This is not an isolated phenomenon. Data from the National Health Service in England shows that waiting lists for treatment have tripled during the pandemic. The number of youth under 20 admitted to hospitals for treatment are up by 50 percent.

Anxious Times

Eating disorders seem to thrive in anxious times. Without a doubt, living through this pandemic qualifies as an anxious time. Stephanie Parker described for NPR how the pandemic brought out issues for her with eating disorders:

“The OCD and anxiety . . . just made my eating disorder more intense, and for me that meant I would become obsessed with cleaning everything and then checking in with myself to see if I deserve to eat. I would become scared of food — I got scared that food would make me sick because it wasn’t clean enough.”

Claire Mysko, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association, explains why the pandemic has been such a problem for people affected by eating disorders:

“We know that eating disorders have a strong link to trauma. Many people with eating disorders have past experiences with trauma, and this  is a collective trauma.”

To find out more or get help in dealing with an eating disorder, you can contact the National Eating Disorder Association online, or text “NEDA” to 741741 to reach a trained volunteer on the group’s crisis text line.

For the new study in Pediatrics, click here. For further reporting, click here, here, and here.

Chaos, painting by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin / WikiArt

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October 13, 2021