COVID-19 has caused eating disorder surge in teens and adults

May 25, 2021
COVID-19 has caused eating disorder surge in teens and adults

Anxiety and isolation are very significant components of eating disorders, said dietitian Jillian Lampert from the Emily Program, a University of Minnesota-affiliated eating disorders treatment programme. Many other healthcare experts echoed the sentiment after recent research showed “massive increases” involving teens and adults seeking help for eating disorders, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The US-based Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, which started offering virtual therapist-led support groups for adults during the pandemic, has also seen a surge. Since January more than 7,000 people from every state and 32 countries have attended their support groups, said alliance CEO Johanna Kandel.

Hospitalisations are up, especially among teen girls, with severe complications from eating disorders. An analysis of electronic medical records data from about 80 US hospitals found a 30% increase starting after March 2020, compared with data from the previous two years – there were 1,718 admissions for girls aged 12 to 18 through February, but no increase among boys.

Meanwhile, the surge of new cases and relapses is expected to last until late this year, according to Jennifer Wildes, an associate psychiatry professor and director of an outpatient eating disorders programme at the University of Chicago Medicine.

Her treatment programme is treating about 100 patients, a near doubling since before the pandemic. However, some patients now have to wait four to five months to get treatment such as psychotherapy and sometimes medication. Waits usually lasted only a few weeks pre-pandemic, Wildes said.

The Emily Program, which offers teletherapy since the pandemic begun, is experiencing the same thing. Some patients “feel [their lives are] out of control” because of the pandemic and resort to binge eating as a coping mechanism, while others restrict their diets to the point of anorexia – these include patients of all races, adult, teens, young children, and even those in the LGBTQ community, who tend to have higher rates of eating disorders than other groups.

Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge-eating will affect at least 9% of people worldwide: they will affect nearly 30 million Americans in their lifetimes and cause about 10,000 US deaths each year, as cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.People of all races and ethnicities can be affected, according to the association, although there is evidence that doctors less frequently question people of colour about eating disorders.

“The COVID pandemic has presented society and in particular adolescents with very, very significant psychological challenges, said Dr. David Little, a medical informaticist atEpic Health Research Network, US. He said the data should put parents and health care providers on high alert.

“This has been a big event that has disrupted a lot of people’s lives in many ways and it may be months or years before we see all of the true impacts. Talk to your kids, talk to your patients. Ensure that eating behaviours remain healthy and the sooner you get an indication that there may be an issue; the sooner you respond the better.”

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