Isolation caused by COVID-19 triggers sharp rise in Eating Disorders among Children


The impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on our bodies, for those unlucky enough to contract the disease, are undeniable and well-documented. Even the long-term effects (so-called “long COVID”) have been the focus of a growing number of studies. But how this unprecedented situation affects our minds is equally concerning.

So many people of all ages have found themselves, and continue to find themselves, in situations of complete isolation from their friends, families, classmates and work colleagues. Zoom is all very well, but sometimes there is no substitute for seeing someone else’s face in person.

This lack of human contact and socialisation is a contributing factor in leading many people to suffer from anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders, which see them interact with food in an unhealthy way.

The number of urgent referrals for eating disorders in children and young people has risen fourfold in some areas of the UK between October-December 2019 and the last trimester of 2020, while correspondingly waiting times are also seeing major increases. Those completing urgent treatment have risen by almost 90%.

According to Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, talking to the Guardian, this is partly due to people feeling out of control, in addition to isolation which “seems to have a major effect on people’s mental health”.

Dr Ayton stated that messages around weight loss and exercise targeted at the obese were “unhelpful” and “triggering to those with existing difficulties”.

Remember the signs and symptoms for eating disorders, which can include: refusing or skipping meals, especially ones shared with families or friends; eating alone or in secret; eating only at certain times; following a specific diet or food plan; over-exercising; and sharp mood swings.

Some groups are more vulnerable than others to eating disorders, such as those with body image issues. Typical factors include disrupted routines, causing increased weight and shape concerns; increased use of social media, showing unrealistic ideas of body image, provoking anxiety; higher stress levels due to school closure, exam cancellations; lack of social contact with peers; quarantining, especially at university; concerns about economic issues; and, of course, family members and other loved ones becoming ill with COVID, or even dying from the disease.

Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health

A survey of paediatricians by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) in December 2020 also found that an unprecedented number of children are being admitted to hospital suffering from eating disorders, with long waiting lists and a lack of beds.

According to Dr Simon Chapman, Consultant Paediatrician, King’s College Hospital and South London and the Maudsley:

“Referrals since March 2020 have tripled. It has been made harder during the pandemic because assessments and treatment have to be done through a screen. Sometimes, though, that just doesn’t work, and we have had to bring people up to the hospital. When families do come, it has often been going on for several months, and of course, the young people are very ill by then.”

Dr Luci Etheridge, Consultant General Paediatrics and Young People’s Health, Consultant Paediatrician CAMHS Community Eating Disorders, St George’s Hospital, London, said:

“The difficulties caused by lockdown and the loss of school are a universal part of the narrative in new presentations. It is common for young people to talk about anxiety increasing with the loss of school and worry about inactivity, often leading to a change in eating and exercise, which has played a part in precipitating an eating disorder. There are other factors mentioned, like loss of control, change in family relationships, sense of hopelessness for the future.” 

Lockdown is an extremely challenging time for young people. If your child is displaying symptoms of an eating disorder, whether limiting their food intake, eating excessively, or purging, then you should take action to help them sooner rather than later.

In addition to your parental support, love and attention, they will also need professional treatment to overcome the disease.

We’re here to help.

Contact us today for a totally confidential, no-obligation conversation with one of our professionals.

Fiona - The Wave Clinic

Fiona Yassin is the founder and clinical director at The Wave Clinic. She is a U.K. and International registered Psychotherapist and Accredited Clinical Supervisor (U.K. and UNCG).

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