More than 18 months since COVID-19 first led to lockdowns across the United States, data are beginning to emerge that reveal the harmful effects of the pandemic on some people with eating disorders. A report appearing in the October issue of Pediatrics describes how the number of children and adolescents admitted for eating disorders at a children’s hospital in Michigan rose steadily during the first 12 months of the pandemic.
“An increase in severely ill adolescents with [eating disorders] during COVID-19 is likely to present challenges for patients, their families, and their providers because demand for treatment (access to which is already limited by pandemic precautions, as well as a lack of providers predating the pandemic) is likely to increase, perhaps dramatically,” wrote Alana K. Otto, M.D., M.P.H., of the University of Michigan and colleagues.
Otto and colleagues performed a chart review of youth aged 10 to 23 years admitted to C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., between March 1, 2017, and March 31, 2021, for medical complications of restrictive eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, atypical anorexia nervosa, and avoidant or restrictive food intake disorder.
The researchers compared data on youth admitted to the hospital from March 2017 through March 2020 (before the COVID-19 pandemic) with data on youth admitted to the hospital from April 2020 through March 2021 (during the COVID-19 pandemic).
There were 297 admissions of youth for medical complications related to eating disorders among 248 patients during the study period. The researchers found that while the number of admissions decreased in April 2020, the number of admissions per month increased significantly over time. The total number of admissions during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic (April 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021) was more than double the mean number of admissions per year for the same time frame (April 1 through March 31) for the previous three years, the authors noted. The highest counts were observed near the end of the study period, nine to 12 months after the pandemic began.
“[A]lthough anecdotal, our recent clinical experience suggests adolescents with new [eating disorders] frequently report their [eating disorder] behaviors began when pandemic precautions were implemented because, for example, they found themselves with nothing else to do or with more time to engage in diet and/or exercise behaviors they had previously considered but not acted on,” they wrote. Also, because of the interruption of social relationships, the youth may have turned to social media, which has been suggested to contribute to the development of eating disorders, according to the authors.
“Although our findings reflect the experience of a single institution, they are in keeping with emerging reports suggesting a developing epidemic within the pandemic, one with the potential to have profound negative effects on the mental and physical health of adolescents around the globe,” they continued. “It is unclear how long these effects may last.”
For related information, see the Psychiatric News article “Eating Disorders: Current Knowledge and Treatment Update.”
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