I recently came across an article titled “Pandemic has fueled eating disorder surge in teens, adults”. I was dismayed to read about how eating disorder diagnoses and needs have increased exponentially since the start of the pandemic. Wait times for treatment can be months and there is a shortage of beds in inpatient facilities as well as appointments with therapists. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, which started offering virtual therapist-led support groups for adults during the pandemic, have also seen a huge surge. Since January more than 7,000 people from every state and 32 countries have attended their support groups and hospitalizations have increased greatly as well. The article above reports that medical records data from 80 US hospitals found a full 30% eating disorder patient increase since March 2020, that was compared with data from the 2 previous years. I was disheartened to hear that among girls aged 12 to 18 there were 1,718 admissions in these hospitals alone – interestingly however, there were no increases among boys.
Sadly, there have been large surges in all types of mental health illness since the onset of Covid-19. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), a nonprofit organization focusing on national health issues, since the pandemic onset there has been a fourfold increase in symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder. People are reporting difficulty with sleeping, difficulty with eating, and increased alcohol and substance use. Children and teens have been hit particularly hard as this is a time when they struggle with their emotions and how to express them. As parents and educators, we must inform ourselves about the signs and symptoms of stress and strain on our children to best help them cope and to reduce the possibility of turning into something more serious.
Different people cope in different ways and so their signs of stress will vary. Young children might struggle with their sleep schedule, develop more separation anxiety, be more aggressive with siblings and friends, may have more stomach discomfort, or crying more than usual. For older children and adolescents though, things such as changes in mood, changes in behavior including stepping back from personal relationships, any loss in joy or interest from activities that were previously enjoyed, changes in eating patterns or appetite, reduced effort or interest in academics, any risky or reckless behaviors, or appearance changes such as decreased personal hygiene or taking less care of themselves, are all warning signs that your child could use some help.
We have to work to keep the lines of communication open with our children. We have to notice how they are acting and reacting. Encourage them to speak with someone if they are struggling. We must keep an eye out for any changes in behavior of any kind and not delay in speaking to a professional if you have any concerns. Eating disorders are much easier to address and treat when they are discovered early on, but even better, of course, is if they do not develop at all. Educating ourselves on the risk factors for them as well as their symptoms has been scientifically proven to help reduce their onset.
And while I do not have any specific numbers for how the pandemic has affected our community specifically, it is a good reminder that although we always need to pay attention to the signs and symptoms, it is even more important to be diligent in times of acute stress. Let’s keep working together to eradicate these devastating illnesses.