Many hospital beds are full. Waiting lists for outpatient treatment are increasing. And teens and adults looking for help with eating disorders often find it takes months to make an appointment.
The pandemic created treacherous conditions for food disorders, causing an increase in new cases and relapses that do not decrease as restrictions are eased and COVID-19 cases decrease in many places, doctors and other specialists say.
“We absolutely observe massive increases,” said Jennifer Wildes, an associate professor of psychiatry and director of an outpatient eating disorder program at the University of Chicago. Some patients wait four to five months to receive treatment, such as psychotherapy and sometimes drugs Wildes said the waits used to last just a few weeks before the pandemic.
His program treats about 100 patients, nearly twice as many as before the pandemic, he said.
The Emily Program, an eating disorder treatment program affiliated with the University of Minnesota, is experiencing the same thing.
Daily calls from people seeking treatment have doubled, from about 60 in 2019 to 130 since the pandemic began, said dietitian Jillian Lampert, the program’s chief strategy officer.
“We know that anxiety and isolation are often very important components of eating disorders,” he said.
Some patients say “my life feels out of control” because of the pandemic and they resort to alcoholism as a coping mechanism, Lampert said. Others have taken the message “don’t win pandemic 15” to the extreme, restricting their diets to the point of anorexia.
The program offers inpatient treatments and outpatient programs in several states, which switched to teletherapy when the pandemic began. This has continued, although face-to-face treatment has been resumed.
“We have seen an overall increase in patients of all races, adults, teens and even even young children,” he said.This includes LGBTQ people, who tend to have higher rates of eating disorders than others. groups and girls are more affected than men.
Peyton Crest, an 18 years old of Minnetonka, Minnesota, says he developed anorexia before the pandemic, but that he has relapsed twice since it started.
She was already distressed and pressured when the school connected to the Internet and last year social distancing began.
“It was my first year, I was about to apply to college,” he said. Suddenly deprived of friends and classmates, of her support system, she would spend all day alone in her room and worry about thoughts about food and anorexic behavior.
With the discomfort of his parents, he received local treatment in June, but relapsed in September and spent nearly two months in a residential treatment center in Arizona.
Her school recently returned to face-to-face classes, she was accepted to Rhodes College in Memphis and Crest says she does so much better.
“My mental health it has improved tremendously, ”he said.
Wildes said his program has not seen a slowdown.
“People have not returned to their routines,” he said, predicting that the increase in patients will not decrease until the fall.
The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness, which began offering support groups led by adult virtual therapists during the pandemic, has also experienced an increase. Since January, more than 7,000 people from all states and 32 countries have attended its support groups, said alliance CEO Johanna Kandel.
“It’s not like anything we’ve seen before,” he said.
Hospitalizations are also on the rise among adolescent girls with serious complications from eating disorders, especially anorexia.
Eating disorders affect at least 9% of people worldwide. They will affect nearly 30 million Americans during their lifetime and cause nearly 10,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to data cited by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
Anorexia, one of the most common eating disorders, often involves restrictive eating habits and extreme thinness. It can cause abnormally low blood pressure and organ damage.
Bulimia, another eating disorder, includes eating large amounts of food followed by self-induced vomiting. Signs may include frequent use of laxatives and immediate trips to the bathroom after meals.
People of all races and ethnicities may be affected, although there is evidence that doctors less frequently question people of color about eating disorders, according to the association.
An analysis of electronic medical records data from about 80 U.S. hospitals found a 30% increase as of March 2020, compared to data from the previous two years. There was 1,718 admissions for girls aged 12 to 18 up to February, but there was no increase among boys.
The analysis was published in April in the journal Epic Health Research Network.
“The COVID pandemic it has presented to society and, in particular, to adolescents, very, very significant psychological challenges. This has been a great event that has altered the lives of many people in many ways and it can take months or years before we see all the real impacts, ”said Dr. Dave Little, family physician and Epic researcher who led the analysis.
He said the data should alert parents and health care providers.
” Talk to your children, talk to your patients. Make sure your eating behaviors stay healthy and the sooner you get the indication that there may be a problem … the sooner you respond, the better, ”Little said.
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