Recent data reported by the BBC shows an alarming rise of eating disorders of under-20s across the UK this year. The 50% increase in the number of young people being admitted for treatment is generating pressure on the NHS and health workers as they struggle to cope with the number of people seeking treatment for anorexia and bulimia.
Dr Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists has told The Guardian that in Oxford where she currently works there has been a greater number of urgent eating disorder patient referrals than in previous years – from the usual 20% all the way to 80%. Worryingly she notes that there has also been a fourfold increase in the number of children and young people waiting for urgent treatment in the later months of 2020 compared to 2019’s statistics.
In the same article, Dr Lorna Richards, a psychiatrist specialising in adult eating disorders at the Priory Group, has been quoted in The Guardian:
“Since the early summer of 2020, I have seen a huge increase in referrals from people with existing disorders who have deteriorated since the pandemic emerged.”
Why Are The Numbers Rising?
Therapists across the UK have all noticed a rise in their caseload since the height of the pandemic in 2020, and are still seeing the effects of lockdown in their practices today. For therapists working with those who suffer with eating disorders, there is no exception.
The isolation of the pandemic, the limit of movement and social activity are factors in many cases of deterioration in mental health, but testimony from Dr Richards highlights an important aspect of lockdown that may have caused eating disorders to thrive while we have been stuck inside: a lack of control in daily life.
While many cannot control where they go, who they see or what they do, the one thing they can control (or at least attempt to) is the amount that they eat, or perhaps more concerning, what they look like.
“There has also been widespread concern [among the general population] about lack of physical activity, and about weight gain during periods of lockdown, which has seen the nation both dieting and exercising, en masse” She tells The Guardian, “Eating disorders have thrived in this environment, as the focus on eating and weight control becomes a way of coping.”
Dr Ayton also raises a great point that the sudden rise in cases could also be due in part to the lack of people feeling as though they can seek help in the midst of lockdown. Ayton says,
“Some people don’t want to see their GP or they don’t feel they deserve to come forward as they think that other people with Covid are more deserving. There is a lot of shame related to eating disorders.”
In addition to all of the worrying news that has been circulating over the pandemic, another largely contributing factor is the use of social media and screen-time. On Private Practice Hub we have already discussed the damage that a high amount of screen-time can have on mental health – especially in lockdown, but what about the effect of those with eating disorders?
Dr. Johannes Hatem, Founder of Mindler UK has told Private Practice Hub that the use of social media is not innately harmful, but is when used in excess and especially when usage is passive:
“The important factor when considering screen time is to look at the type of screen time and the type of online activities. Are they active or passive? Are they social or solo? In general, passive and isolated activities are more connected to depression rather than active activities. Active screen time is when we are learning, engaging, doing something creative or video chatting with a friend?
The biggest issues we’ve seen during lockdown are mostly related to loneliness, worrying about the economy, one’s health and the health of loved ones. If screen time is used for social interaction it might alleviate feelings of loneliness, but if it is passive screen time the effect might be the opposite.”
The damaging effect of social media and screen-time relies a lot on what kind of interactions people are having online. Social media platforms such as Instagram, where there is less interaction and more passive viewing, combined with the existing body image and diet culture that is already prevalent worrying diet and body image culture), it can have an exacerbated effect on those struggling with food or body image.
Bryn Austin, professor in the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and director of the Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders has been quoted in an article by Harvard explaining that social media platforms such as Instagram where body image is a huge part of the culture, people find themselves comparing their own bodies with what they see on their phones, causing damage to self-esteem and emphasising diet culture.
“This comparison creates a downward spiral in terms of body image and self-esteem,” she said. “It makes young people more likely to adopt unhealthy weight control behaviours.”
What Kind Of Support Is Out There?
Generally the kinds of therapy that people suffering with eating disorders receive are:
- Cognitive behavioural therapy
- Family-based therapy
- Group cognitive behavioural therapy.
There are other ways suggested by the Mayo Clinic to improve a patient’s recovery, such as working with a nutritionist to develop a plan to create healthier eating habits and help those in recovery take steps to avoid bingeing or extreme dieting.
Beat, the UK’s Eating Disorder Charity has posted a statement on their website, citing the pandemic as a source of anxiety and uncertainty and highlights the importance of seeking help even in the midst of isolation.
In an effort to combat the expected deterioration of mental health, the charity has doubled its efforts to make sure support is available for those who need it, when they need it, starting with a new online group, and setting up helpline team members with a way to work from home and provide support.
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Article written by Maisie Violet Wicks, BA Hons, columnist for Private Practice Hub. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org