If you or someone you know is experiencing disordered eating, call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237 for support Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST and Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST.
For many, the coronavirus pandemic disrupted their life more than anything they’ve ever experienced. That shock, both mental and physical, has triggered a spike in eating disorders that experts warn is only getting worse.
"We know that eating disorders have a strong link to trauma," Claire Mysko, CEO of NEDA, told NPR. "Many people with eating disorders have past experiences with trauma, and this [pandemic era] is a collective trauma."
Experts warned about a potential increase in eating disorders due to the coronavirus pandemic back in June, noting more barriers to care and less barriers of protection, and it seems they were right. More than 4 in 5 people who self-reported an eating disorder said their symptoms are worsening in a recent survey, facing more stress with fewer available coping mechanisms. Others are reporting eating disorders for the first time, and last month the National Eating Disorders Association reported a 78 percent increase to its helpline since March.
At one facility in Oxford, England, urgent referrals have gone from 20 percent of admissions to 80 percent, Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, told the Guardian. Four times as many children and young people are waiting for treatment from October, November and December than the same period in 2019.
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“We expect the tsunami is still coming,” Ayton told the Guardian. “We don’t think it has been and gone.”
Research shows that only 1 in 4 people with eating disorders seeks treatment, which took a hit during the pandemic, but could see an upswing with the advent of telehealth.
“Some people don’t want to see their [general practitioner] or they don’t feel they deserve to come forward as they think that other people with Covid are more deserving,” Ayton told the Guardian. “There is a lot of shame related to eating disorders.”
The perception of eating disorders as a condition that only affects white women and girls is another reason eating disorders often go unreported, undiagnosed and untreated among other populations. Men and boys make up a quarter of known cases, but early signs are often missed. The condition can also manifest differently in non-white communities — for example, anorexia is less common in Black Americans than white Americans, but Black girls and women are more likely to engage in bulimic behavior or recurrent binge eating.
"The language used around eating disorders was about white girls having eating disorders," Stephanie Parker, who is Black, told NPR. "It was about the emaciated-looking type girls or the girls that I heard throwing up in the bathroom."
The effects of the coronavirus pandemic on body image and eating disorders can also manifest in more subtle ways. In Australia, the shutdown of beauty and cosmetic services coupled with the break from public activity meant some people were investing less time in their physical appearance. But those with higher levels of body dysmorphia reported distress over the closures in a recent survey and spent even more time focused on their appearance, seeking out their own solutions — including dietary restriction and exercise.
So what can you do if you're struggling with disordered eating? The first thing is to talk to your physician — whatever your symptoms may be. If you're already diagnosed with an eating disorder, consider reaching out to a clinician, such as a psychotherapist, nutritionist or dietician, to help manage an eating disorder. Finally, ask for help: from medical professionals, your community and online.
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