Pandemic drove uptick in eating disorders, especially among young people: experts

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Eating disorder illustration Photo credit Getty Images

(WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Linden Oaks Behavioral Health reports a major uptick in the number of patients seeking treatment for eating disorders.

“It’s very concerning,” said Trish Fairbanks, MSN, RN, associate vice president and chief nursing officer. “What’s really concerning is the acuity that we’re seeing in much younger patients.”

Since the start of the pandemic, the facility’s inpatient eating disorder program shifted from a combination of adults and teens to entirely adolescents ranging from 12 to 18 years old.

One reason for the surge is that COVID-19 uprooted “normal” routines for young adults, making them feel anxious or out of control.

“Eating disorders often are about control, and it’s the one thing they can control right now,” said Sue Driscoll, BSN, RN-BC, clinical leader of eating disorder services. ”People started engaging in some of these behaviors and it’s not like you can just turn it on and turn it off.”

Another factor is that teens are spending more time at home, and more time online.

Said Fairbanks: “There are some extremely, extremely destructive websites out there teaching kids how to withhold, celebrating eating disorders.”

Another challenge brought on by COVID-19 is that many non-hospital mental health services shifted to telehealth. This is something that doesn’t quite work for those suffering from an eating disorder, Driscoll said.

“They need that meal support in person. It’s very difficult to do that over a Zoom call,” she said.

Because Linden Oaks is part of Edward Elmhurst Hospital, it was able to offer in-person hospitalization services amid the pandemic.

“All of a sudden we had this ginormous waiting list because people wanted to come face to face,” Fairbanks said. “They did not want to do virtual because they didn’t find it to be helpful.”

As coronavirus restrictions begin to ease, health experts are optimistic services will once again return to being fully in-person.

Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, experts note.