Why has the ongoing pandemic caused a surge in eating disorders?
The past two years havegenerated feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in young people, asseen by referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Northern Ireland increasing by 24%during the pandemic.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that the number of eating disorders in children was at crisis point in February 2022. Research showed that the number of young people under-19 waiting for routine treatments has reached new levels, while those waiting on urgent care is the second highest on record.
Anyone can develop an eating disorder. They can be triggered by something life-changing (like a pandemic, a big life change, or global events) or something that may seem small to others but is impactful to an individual. This can include stress, grief, relationship changes, or cultural and societal pressures.
How did the pandemic affect eating disorders?
Eating disorders commonly exist alongside other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The heightened anxiety and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic raised unique challenges for people experiencing eating disorders including:
Disruption of living situations
Isolation from others
Difficulty in accessing healthcare
Increased time spent online
Lack of access to in-person counselling
The anxiety and stress experiencedduring the pandemic and multiple lockdowns could have caused many young people to turn to disordered eating behaviours as a way to try and cope with their feelings.
The increase in time spent online has also meant young people are now more likely to be exposed to content on social media that encourages poor self-esteem and disordered eating behaviours, from influencers promoting appetite suppressants to fitness routines, filters, and image editing to create a portrayal of unrealistic body standards. All of this could encourage unhealthy eating habits and/or have a negative effect on eating habits.
What is an Eating Disorder?
An eating disorderis a mental health conditionwhere someone has an unhealthy relationship with food. This relationship might also extend to exercise or attitudes to body weight orshape.
When we think about eating disorders, usually we focus on behaviours that are commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia. Although these are the most well-known,around 50% of those living with an eating disorder will have an‘atypical eating disorder’ that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for either anorexia or bulimia.
It is important for parents and safeguarding professionals to be aware of other forms of eating disorders that may not always have the typical signs they would expect. These fall under the categories known as OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders).
Recognising that eating disorders are complex mental health conditions and the young people dealing with them deserve the support of their family, friends and wider community.
Talking to the child in your care about what is worrying them in a place where they feel safe.Try not centre the conversation on food or weight. While this may be necessary to bring up, it is important that conversations remain centred on how they feel.
Understanding what language or topics may be unhelpful to discuss with a young person who is struggling with their relationship with food.
Avoiding an emotional response. Try not to get angry, disheartened, or upset if they respond in an angry or defensive matter. Reassure them that you are there to support them whenever they are ready to speak to you.
Recognising that eating disorders are not a choice and can affect a young person regardless of body shape, gender, or weight.
Helping the young person in your care to engage with their support network, and to seek medical attention.
Being aware of the need for healthy social media habits, particularly if a young person is exposed to unhelpful content.
Information Advice and Guidance
In a medical emergency please dial 999 (emergency number)