The Pandemic Rise in Eating Disorders

Kid Eating BreakfastTo folks who concern themselves with eating disorders, this is not news. Rather, it is confirmation. The pandemic has brought a sharp rise in eating disorders. A new report yesterday in the MMWR provides solid documentation. In fact, the proportion of emergency department visits with eating disorders doubled for teenage girls during the pandemic. Emily Pluhar is a pediatric psychologist at Boston Children’s Hospital. She described the findings as unsurprising:

“You take a very vulnerable group and put on a global pandemic. The eating disorders are out of control.”

The report also found a tripling of emergency visits for tic disorders (involuntary movements, twitches, or sounds) for adolescent girls. The authors of the MMWR report describe these observations as an indication of a rise in distress for these teens:

“Increases in weekly visits for eating and tic disorders for females, and particularly among adolescent females aged 12–17 years during 2020, 2021, and in January 2022, could represent an overall increase in distress among females during the pandemic. Both eating and tic disorders can co-occur with anxiety, depression, and OCD.”

A Hidden Burden?

Recently, in Lancet Psychiatry, Stephan Zipfel, Ulrike Schmidt, and Katrin Giel called eating disorders a “hidden burden” of the pandemic. They point to the stigma that leads people to quite literally hide the problem. But of course, this merely makes dealing with it more difficult. That’s because professionals can’t treat a problem they don’t see. Further, it’s difficult to know what works and what doesn’t when a condition isn’t adequately seen or studied.

That’s the irony of health stigma. Inevitably, it magnifies the harm of a health problem.

An Urgent Crisis in the Spotlight

Debra Katzman describes the urgency of this problem:

“Unfortunately, it took a disaster like the COVID-19 pandemic to put the spotlight on eating disorders. The eating disorder surge, underscored by the study reported by Lin et al, is a wake-up call for making eating disorders a priority.”

This is not only a tragedy for our children. In fact, it is a test for us. Will we care enough for them to treat eating disorders with as much urgency as we have given the pandemic that brought them to the surface? Moreover, can we direct our passions into protecting the mental health of our young people?

Click here for the MMWR report and here for further perspective on it. For more on the crisis in mental health affecting our youth, click here and here.

Kid Eating Breakfast, painting by George Bouzianis / WikiArt

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February 19, 2022