Eating disorders 'thrive in isolation': Coronavirus quarantine has led to a nearly 80% increase in calls for help, experts say
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Eating disorders thrive in isolation. Which explains why health experts have seen a surge in people seeking help amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The National Eating Disorders Association has reported steep increases, up to 78% during some months, in the number of calls and online chats compared to a year ago as millions of Americans quarantine to slow the spread of the virus..
"The pandemic has created an elevated sense of anxiety for everyone. For people with eating disorders, it is even more pronounced," NEDA's CEO Claire Mysko told USA TODAY.
Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses that affect a person's eating behaviors — regardless of age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity and/or socioeconomic status.
They're also connected with other mental health diagnoses such as anxiety, depression, trauma and substance abuse. The recovery process can take months and typically involves relearning normal eating habits, coping skills and, most importantly, building a support system.
Psychologists often recommend people with eating disorders "to connect and to build community, and the important public health recommendations around physical distancing are actually in contrast to what people learn in recovery," Mysko said.
"Connection is key because eating disorders really do thrive in isolation," she said.
The pandemic has also affected people who were not previously diagnosed with an eating disorder but were negatively impacted by their thoughts on food, weight, fitness and dieting, Mysko said.
In Los Angeles, the group practice Eating Disorder Therapy LA has also had an increase in patients. The practice's director, Lauren Muhlheim, told USA TODAY they've been getting a lot of referrals from the outpatient treatment program at the University of California San Francisco.
"We definitely saw a lot of people who really started exercising excessively and that seemed to exacerbate and trigger eating disorders in a certain portion of people," Muhlhein said.
The "cultural messaging" on social media during the pandemic has also affected members of the eating disorders community, Mysko said.
"COVID 19" and "Quarantine 15" are both plays on "freshman 15," referring to the 15 pounds that students gain during their first year of college.
While some health experts fear that weight gain during the pandemic can lead to health risks like obesity, Mysko said there are many influencers and companies capitalizing on that message.
People with eating disorders "are feeling not only the negative impact of being isolated but also this pressure around, 'How do I have the 'perfect body' in quarantine?' and it's having a really negative impact in our community," Mysko said.
"Eating during a pandemic is normal and gaining weight during a pandemic is fine, too," said Muhlheim, author of "When Your Teen Has an Eating Disorder: Practical Strategies to Help Your Teen Recover from Anorexia, Bulimia, and Binge Eating."
"Having survived a pandemic is a success," she said.
Here are some tips and resources:
- If you think that you or someone you know have warning signs of an eating disorder, get screened.
- Virtually connect with a community, such as a Helpline or support groups.
- Reach out to your support system and schedule a FaceTime or video chat during meal times.
- Be thoughtful about your social media consumption and unfollow accounts that make you feel anxious. Instead, follow accounts that focus on self-care.