The start of the pandemic has disrupted the previous routines of many people. Following the inconveniences and uncertainties, there has been a rise in anxiety among the public, creating particularly challenging conditions for eating disorders. This impose difficulty has led to “a surge of new cases and relapses” of eating disorder cases, not receding even after the restrictions were eased. Even as life seems gradually getting back on track, the surge doesn’t seem to subside at the moment. To further the SDG of promoting health and well-being for all at all ages, it is crucial to pay attention to the struggles of eating disorders, an issue long shushed or ignored.
“We are absolutely seeing massive increases,” quoted Wildes, the director of an eating disorder program at the University of Chicago Medicine. Experts from various eating disorder programs have spoken out about the same concern. According to analysis from around 80 US hospitals, cases of eating disorders have increased by 30 percent since March 2020.
Eating disorders are defined as “psychological disorders characterized by serious disturbances of eating behavior.” The most common types include anorexia nervosa characterized by significantly restricting food intake, as well as bulimia nervosa, characterized by consuming large quantities of food and compulsive purging afterwards. At least 9% of the population worldwide is estimated to be affected by eating disorders, 95% of which are between 12 to 25 years old. Meanwhile, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, resulting in the direct deaths of more than 10,200 every year — “one every 52 minutes.”
Although the exact cause of eating disorders remains unclear, a range of factors potentially plays a role. While genetic predispositions and biological factors may make some more prone to develop one themselves, psychological factors such as trauma and stress from life events are also powerful triggers. Further note that although eating disorders can theoretically affect all regardless of their arbitrary birth factors (e.g. race, age, gender), women are significantly more likely to be affected, although report statistics of men suffering from eating disorders may be underestimated due to cultural discrimination. A prevalent toxic beauty culture has long led many, especially women, to associate their self-esteem with their appearances. The beauty industry and media have further exploited body insecurities to decrease body satisfaction. To summarize, multiple factors combine to the ultimate development of eating disorders.
The pandemic has created a global context accelerating isolation and anxiety, fueling the risk of eating disorders. “We know that anxiety and isolation are typically very significant components of eating disorders,’’ commented Lampert, a dietitian of an eating disorder treatment center. During the pandemic, many have experienced what scientists call “covid-19 anxiety syndrome”. Lockdowns have made socializing a concept mixed with fear and anxiety. Changes in the once familiar daily activities have led to rising emotional distress. Rising record numbers have increased public fear and apathy, both of which are amplified by related media reports.
Further, the pandemic has created certain barriers obstructing access to help and prevention. The previous support networks have been harder to access: The treatment process guiding patients to join activities and build connections with others has been halted, and many have resorted to self-deceiving excuses, refusing to go out shopping for food. However, psychiatrists have been actively working to help solve the current crisis, with many transitioning offline in-person counseling into tele-therapies. Professional and nonprofit organizations have compiled helpful resources for self-help, hosted onlne forums for communty support, and even set up an online library of related information and sharing sessions. For eating disorder patients and caregivers, health professionals and coordinating to best cope with the special time.
On the bright side, the rise in the number of people turning to related programs is a reassuring sign that more people are actively seeking help in face of eating disorder, taking their first step to recovery. Mental illnesses such as eating disorders are perhaps more prevalent than imagined, and the first step of healing might be to confront the problem.