How The Pandemic Is Fueling Eating Disorders In Young People

“I just needed more control” Anne, a college student from Massachusetts, took a deep breath as she recounted her experiences with disordered eating during the pandemic. Anne had been aware of her struggles with food for much of her life, but it wasn’t until the pandemic hit that she started to feel completely out of control.

According to an analysis of medical record data from 80 hospitals, there has been a 25% increase in the number of adolescent eating disorder patients since March 2020.

Isolation, lack of structure, and heightened anxiety are three possible triggers for the increase in eating disorders. While the majority of the population faced all three as the world entered lockdown, Anne describes the unique pressures that young adults and adolescents faced on social media, “there was a general discourse on social media about not gaining weight during Covid or focusing on getting fit during Covid. So many people were equating self-improvement with weight loss or changing eating habits and it really affected me.”

Dr. Jillian Lampert, the Chief Strategy Officer at a treatment center called the Emily Program, is unsurprised by the impact of social media on young people, “given the isolation that Covid brought, all of the messages on social media platforms were one of the main interactions that people had with the world… we’ve seen a huge influx in the need for care.”

In a survey of eating disorder patients, 74% of participants who had transitioned from in-person treatment to telehealth during the pandemic found that telehealth was less effective than their in-person treatment, “It became so easy to hide… all that my treatment team could see was my face so I would throw away certain parts of my meal or go to the bathroom immediately after the session.” Anne says.

Telehealth has addressed geographical barriers to care, yet significant financial barriers to eating disorder treatment still exist, indicating that there may be an even greater number of adolescents suffering from eating disorders that are unaccounted for by treatment center or hospital statistics.

The financial barriers to eating disorder treatment are especially relevant as recent studies have demonstrated that food insecurity, which predominantly affects low-income households of color, can be a significant indicator for eating pathology. In a review of studies that examined the relationship between disordered eating habits and food insecurity among adults, it was found that food insecurity was associated with binge eating, weight controlling behaviors, and bulimia.

Dr. Christine Peat, a psychologist and professor in the Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, has seen the effects of food insecurity in her own patients, “Patients have come to me and said listen, I grew up in a food insecure household and it almost set me up for this pattern where at the beginning of the month when we had our SNAP benefits I might just eat everything in sight because I wasn’t sure when we were going to have food again… when those benefits were low, they were then forced into restrictive eating patterns.”

Because of this relationship, individuals from low-income, food-insecure households are especially at risk for eating disorders but are less likely to have access to treatment, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Excerpted from “How The Pandemic Is Fueling Eating Disorders In Young People” in Forbes. Read the full article online.

Source: Forbes | How The Pandemic Is Fueling Eating Disorders In Young People, | © 2022 Forbes Media LLC.

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