While many are eager to declare the COVID-19 pandemic over, its effects on the mental health of Americans will continue to linger. In addition to increases in depression and anxiety, COVID has been disastrous for those struggling with existing and newly developed eating disorders due to loss of routine, feelings of isolation, heightened anxiety and a lack of structure. According to research published in the October issue of Pediatrics, eating disorder hospitalizations among adolescents more than doubled during the COVID-19 pandemic, and calls to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline spiked 107%. With the number of cases continuing to grow, the need for more access to care grows with it.
The rapid increase in hospitalizations could be linked to reduced access to mental health services. Expanded evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies are therefore becoming increasingly more important, as early identification can be a key factor in recovery for those with eating disorders. The most important thing to know is there are services and treatments available to help.
So, what exactly are eating disorders? Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, binge eating and bulimia nervosa, are serious but treatable mental and physical illnesses that can affect people of all genders, ages, races, religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, body shapes and weights. In America alone, national surveys estimate that 20 million women and 10 million men will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives. That’s 30 million Americans, or almost 10 percent of the population. Despite millions of people experiencing an eating disorder in their lifetime, only one-third will ever receive treatment.
Eating disorders are considered a mental illness as much of the battle occurs internally. With a world full of diets and fitness trends, the desire to look a certain way and the stresses of day-to-day life, many people struggle, not even realizing they’re suffering with an eating disorder. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of any other mental illness, taking the lives of more than 10,000 Americans every year. Early identification is key and proper treatment of an eating disorder can help support recovery, reduce long-term health consequences and a person’s chances of relapse.
The chance for recovery increases the earlier an eating disorder is detected. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the warning signs so you can not only recognize the patterns in your own life, but also in the lives of the people you care about. Emotional and behavioral signs can indicate a certain attitude around weight loss and food control as a primary concern. This can look like refusing to eat certain foods, frequent dieting, consistent concern with body appearance or being uncomfortable eating around others. Physical signs appear because of a lack of nutrition. Dizziness and fatigue, cramps, dental problems, excessive exercise, “fad diets,” weight fluctuation and muscle weakness are a few physical examples that can suggest an eating disorder.
During the height of the pandemic, life for most of us changed dramatically and so did our health and eating habits. From periods of boredom and isolation to times of incredibly high stress and anxiety, many individuals have developed behaviors that resemble an eating disorder. The good news is, there are ways to help and connect people to the life-saving care and support they need. No matter what stage a person is in with their disorder, recovery is possible with the right tools, skills and support.
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Melissa Orshan Spann, LMHC, PhD, CEDS-S, is chief clinical officer at Monte Nido & Affiliates, one of the largest and leading eating disorder platforms in the country, offering inpatient, residential and day treatment programs for eating disorders. Dr. Spann is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist and Supervisor through the International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (IAEDP™). For more info about Monte Nido & Affiliates, please visit their website.