This morning, I read a news story about how eating disorders are on the rise in the United Kingdom, especially among young women. Pediatricians in the United Kingdom are seeing a tremendous rise in the number of patients who are coping with the stresses of the novel coronavirus by engaging in harmful behaviors such as binging and purging, starving themselves, or exercising excessively.
Karen Street, a consultant pediatrician at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital and an officer for child mental health, says, “Eating disorders are often related to a need for control — something many young people feel they have lost during the pandemic.” Eating disorders often occur in young women who are extremely accomplished and driven, engaged in extracurricular activities and earning high grades in school. Thanks to the pandemic and being forced to isolate, many of the activities that young people could be engaged in are now unavailable. Teenagers don’t always have the coping skills that older people have, which would allow them to find a more COVID-19 friendly passion. It’s also harder to see a health care provider face to face right now, as many of them are either focused on treating patients with COVID-19 or are not doing so many in person consultations because of the risk of spreading the disease.
I was interested in reading about this phenomenon. When I was much younger, I used to struggle with eating disorders myself. I think my issues were actually connected with depression, anxiety, and terrible lack of self-esteem and secret wish to exit this life. I never really saw anyone about treating them and eventually managed to outgrow my obsession with food, diet, and exercise. It took years, though, and most people had no idea of the extent of it and would not have taken me seriously even if I had tried to tell anyone. I certainly didn’t look like I had a problem with food or dieting. I think, in my case, I exchanged my problems with eating disorders with something else. My issues with food mostly seemed to stop once I started taking the right antidepressant.
I’ve often marveled at how a few years taking Wellbutrin permanently seems to have changed the way I used to feel all the time. Before I got treated for clinical depression, I often felt overwhelmed and out of control of my emotions. I would vacillate between being funny and gregarious and being very depressed. When I was much younger, people would often ask me, in all seriousness, if I was bipolar. I am not bipolar, but I did have a chemical imbalance for years. Wellbutrin seems to have permanently corrected it, though– that, and having Bill in my life has made a huge difference. He treats me with love and respect. I literally don’t feel the way I used to feel all the time. I feel much more balanced and in control, and with that balance and control, I stopped caring about dieting. I don’t need a lot of people in my life. I just need one person who cares. I have that in Bill. If I didn’t have him, maybe I would go back to the way I once was.
I’ve often thought about what life must be like for young people right now. I think if I were a teenager in the lockdown COVID-19 era, I’d be going crazy. I can remember being 13 years old and stuck at home with my parents because I was sick or there was a big snowstorm. The first day or two was great, but then I got bored and frustrated, and being with my parents was hard, because we didn’t really get along that well. My parents were always at home, because they ran their business from our house. So snow days were particularly difficult, because I had no escape, other than going to the barn where I kept my horse. It wasn’t always easy to get to the barn when there was snow. I usually rode my bike there. It’s hard to bike on snow packed pavement. I remember getting very cagey and depressed when I was out of school for several days due to snow. I would have absolutely hated the way things are now, even though I’m a fairly self-directed person and would have probably done fine with online school.
Being isolated from their peers, teachers, and health care providers, has increased the risks to mental health issues in teens. Young people in Britain are developing eating disorders and can’t get treatment because there are not enough beds in treatment facilities. Washington Post reporter, Miriam Berger, quoted a couple of pediatricians who have seen eating disorder cases rising. From her article:
Luci Etheridge, a pediatrician specializing in eating disorders at St. George’s Hospital in London, reported… a 250 percent increase in cases compared with 2019, with a particular spike in September. Previously, the center had been able to access referrals within a nationally mandated four-week window; now they have 30 children on the waiting list to be assessed.
Jon Rabbs, a consultant pediatrician in Sussex, [claims] his eating disorder service usually saw 11 referrals a month. Since September, it has risen to around 100 monthly.
The increased time people are spending online is probably contributing to the problem. With fewer offline activities available, youngsters are focusing on apps that have to do with calorie counting and recording exercise. Some people will become hyper-obsessed with their diets and exercise because it may take their minds off of the horrors of COVID-19. Or they worry about getting fat because they’re supposed to quarantine or stay at home as much as possible. Or, for some, it could be that the dieting apps are even like video games, as in, “let’s see if I can beat my record for jumping jacks”. On and on it goes, as the sufferer focuses their obsessions on the disorder and being alone with it, instead of getting back to living normally someday.
The sad thing is, when the pandemic ends and lockdowns are lifted, the people who have developed eating disorders will likely still have those problems. The obsessive behaviors won’t go away simply because people will, once again, be allowed to live somewhat normally. Thanks to the lack of treatment facilities and far fewer in person health provider visits and/or attention from teachers, friends, and guidance counselors, the disorders will go unnoticed and untreated for much longer. Delaying the treatment may lead to physical devastation, particularly if the person also gets sick with COVID-19. And one of the main features of eating disorders is the desire to be left alone and isolated. The pandemic provides a perfect environment for that, making the situation especially difficult for those who are already in recovery. I would imagine it’s the same for recovering alcoholics or other addicts, who need regular support to help conquer their addictions.
We are also now in the holiday season, which is stressful and often centers around preparing food and eating it. Usually, we celebrate with each other during the holidays. This year, many people are alone, and a lot of them are facing uncertainty about their finances or career prospects… life itself, really, since we don’t yet know when it will be safe to live in a more normal way. I imagine a lot of teens are hearing their parents worrying about surviving the pandemic, which adds to stress levels. Couple that with adolescents’ inability to do “normal” teenage things. Even dating someone would be difficult right now, which is another rite of passage that mostly affects adolescents. It really is no wonder that a certain type of young person– mostly females, but also males– is engaging in eating disordered behaviors. After all, the one thing most people can control is what they put into their bodies– even if they can’t control a novel virus that is ravaging populations around the world.
Sadly, a lot of people won’t take this issue seriously. As is my habit, I took a look at the comments about this article. At this writing, no one has left any comments on the Washington Post’s article itself. However, many dimwits have descended upon the Washington Post’s Facebook page to leave their ignorant and ill considered thoughts. Quite a few people hadn’t read the article and were spewing the usual crap about “covidiots”, which has absolutely NOTHING to do with the rise in eating disorders. Another insensitive male commenter kept making tasteless jokes about cannibalism– again, this has NOTHING to do with the topic. More than a couple brought up U.S. politics, which again, have nothing to do with the rise of eating disorders among British teens. And then there are the people who blame the media, claiming the media is making the pandemic out to be much worse than it is and is causing the depression and anxiety that can lead to the development of eating disorders.
Having suffered with eating disordered behaviors myself when I was young, this is not something I would ever wish on anyone. It might be funny to make jokes about eating disorders, something that a lot of people don’t understand at all, and don’t even TRY to understand– but to the people who have them, they are hell on earth. While in my case, my issues were mostly in my head and undetected by the people who cared about me, I would not want to be a parent having to deal with a child truly suffering from an eating disorder during the pandemic. It’s hard enough to help them when things are normal. Imagine trying to get help for your child when you can’t even get them in to see a doctor in person and, even when you can, there are no treatment facilities with available beds. Given the damage that eating disorders can do to one’s health, I would imagine that the risk of becoming severely debilitated or dying from COVID-19 would be much graver.
When it comes down to it, eating disorders are a very damaging coping mechanism, not unlike other addictive behaviors like alcoholism or drug abuse. People are stressed right now, and some young people are turning to destructive habits in order to cope with the anxiety and depression associated with the global pandemic. A lot of people who would not have otherwise gone down the dark road of an eating disorder are finding themselves on that path today. If I were a parent, I think I would be concerned… and it would be just one more thing to worry about. I don’t envy today’s parents at all.