- A new report from the CDC found that more children and teens have been going to the emergency department for mental health conditions.
- The number of teen girls going to the ER for eating disorders nearly doubled during the pandemic.
- Experts say the stress and fear of the pandemic may have increased the risk of teens developing eating disorders.
Throughout the pandemic, the lockdowns, social isolation, and relentless anxiety and fear related to COVID-19 have driven a surge in depression, anxiety, and trauma-related mental health conditions among children and teenagers.
The proportion of mental health visits among kids ages 5 to 11 increased by 24 percent from March to October 2020 and by 31 percent among adolescents ages 12 to 17.
The proportion of ER visits related to eating disorders doubled among adolescent females.
According to the researchers, the lack of structure in teenagers’ daily routines, emotional distress, and fluctuations in food availability likely contributed to the rise in eating disorders.
Furthermore, concerns about developing or spreading COVID-19 may have caused some patients with mental health conditions to delay care and treatment at the start of the pandemic, allowing symptoms to worsen over time.
“Eating disorders can develop anytime. When you add COVID stress and uncertainty to the mix, the combination can be disastrous,” said Allison Chase, PhD, an eating disorder specialist and clinical psychologist with Eating Recovery Center.
According to Chase, eating disorders were on the rise before the pandemic.
In less than a decade, the rate of eating disorders had risen by 119 percent in kids under 12. Anorexia is now the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity, said Chase.
The National Eating Disorders Association recorded a 58 percent increase in calls, texts, and chats from March 2020 to October 2021.
Chase says the social isolation and lockdowns likely fueled eating disorders.
“Eating disorders thrive in isolation and secrecy, so the pandemic could have exacerbated that in some people,” Chase said.
Eating disorders specialists also believe the uncertainty, fear, and anxiety related to COVID-19 also contributed to eating disorders.
“For those more predisposed with an anxious temperament, as we see in those suffering from eating disorders, it makes sense that emotional discomfort is intensifying, resulting in an increase in eating disorders,” Chase said.
Erin Parks, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer at the virtual eating disorder treatment provider Equip, says school closures created social isolation for teenagers, which caused them to spend more time on social media.
“Research recently emerged showing how social media can exacerbate poor body image, promote diet culture, and trigger eating disorders,” Parks said.
In addition, many families experienced financial stress, and eating disorders tend to increase during periods of food insecurity, Parks said.
Teenagers with eating disorders tend to compare their appearance or body shape and size to others.
Behavioral changes, along with fluctuations in physical appearance, are also common.
“Often children struggling with body image issues will withdraw from social activities or exhibit inappropriate or excessive sadness, anger or guilt,” Chase said.
Some may limit the amount of food they eat or suddenly say they dislike certain foods they previously enjoyed.
Hiding food, secretive eating, starting a new diet, obsessing over physical activity, and going to the bathroom after meals are common signs as well, according to Allie Weiser, PsyD, education and resources manager at The National Alliance for Eating Disorders.
Parks recommends making an appointment with your child’s pediatrician or primary care physician.
“The physician will want to check their height and weight, vitals, and may request lab work or an EKG,” Parks said.
The earlier treatment is started, the more effective it will likely be.
Weiser recommends that parents take the time to learn more about eating disorders. There are many resources available to help guide parents and their children living with eating disorders.
Parks says a few of her favorites are the National Eating Disorder Association, Project HEAL, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, and FEAST.
“Validate your child’s feelings, struggles, and express your support,” Weiser said.
Be aware of the stigma and shame surrounding eating disorders. Approach the conversation from a place of curiosity and avoid judgment or criticism, said Park.
Let your child understand that they didn’t choose to develop an eating disorder — they are biopsychosocial, brain-based illnesses, Weiser said.
Lastly, take care of your own mental and physical health, and consider joining a support group to process your own emotions and find ways to cope as you help your child recover.
A new report from the CDC found that the proportion of emergency room visits related to eating disorders doubled among adolescent females during the pandemic. The rise in eating disorders can likely be attributed to the social isolation, fear, and uncertainty felt by so many during the pandemic.