Last Updated on 19th May 2022

Why has the ongoing pandemic caused a surge in eating disorders?

The past two years have generated feelings of anxiety and uncertainty in young people, as seen by referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) in Northern Ireland increasing by 24% during the pandemic.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported that the number of eating disorders in children was at crisis point in February 2022. Research showed that the number of young people under-19 waiting for routine treatments has reached new levels, while those waiting on urgent care is the second highest on record.

Anyone can develop an eating disorder. They can be triggered by something life-changing (like a pandemic, a big life change, or global events) or something that may seem small to others but is impactful to an individual. This can include stress, grief, relationship changes, or cultural and societal pressures.  

woman sat on her bed with her head on her knees

How did the pandemic affect eating disorders?

Eating disorders commonly exist alongside other mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. The heightened anxiety and uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic raised unique challenges for people experiencing eating disorders including: 

  • Disruption of living situations
  • Isolation from others
  • Difficulty in accessing healthcare
  • Increased time spent online
  • Lack of access to in-person counselling

The anxiety and stress experienced during the pandemic and multiple lockdowns could have caused many young people to turn to disordered eating behaviours as a way to try and cope with their feelings.  

In a recent study, over (55%) of those living with an eating disorder reported that increased time spent online due to COVID-19 had worsened their symptoms.

According to the Faculty of Eating Disorders Psychiatry, due to the pandemic many young people didn’t receive the support they needed early enough, which could have led to their eating disorders becoming worse or harder to treat. 

The increase in time spent online has also meant young people are now more likely to be exposed to content on social media that encourages poor self-esteem and disordered eating behaviours, from influencers promoting appetite suppressants to fitness routines, filters, and image editing to create a portrayal of unrealistic body standards. All of this could encourage unhealthy eating habits and/or have a negative effect on eating habits. 

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where someone has an unhealthy relationship with food. This relationship might also extend to exercise or attitudes to body weight or shape.   

When we think about eating disorders, usually we focus on behaviours that are commonly associated with anorexia and bulimia. Although these are the most well-known, around 50% of those living with an eating disorder will have an ‘atypical eating disorder’ that does not meet the diagnostic criteria for either anorexia or bulimia.   

It is important for parents and safeguarding professionals to be aware of other forms of eating disorders that may not always have the typical signs they would expect.  These fall under the categories known as OSFED (Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorders).

Recognising the Signs of Eating Disorders

Recognising the signs of problematic relationships with food is central to supporting children and young people during uncertain times. 

These may include:

  • Refusing to eat certain foods; engagement with fad diets or masking problematic behaviours with different food practices (no sugar, no carbs, vegan, keto, paleo etc) or a preoccupation with calories.
  • Withdrawal or less interest in social activities that were previously enjoyable.
  • Making frequent comments about feeling ‘fat’ or ‘overweight’ or a preoccupation with looking in the mirror to check for flaws.
  • Drinking excessive amounts of water/low calorie drinks (black coffee/diet fizzy drinks).
  • Sudden poor oral hygiene, or brushing of teeth more than necessary.

  • For females, they may miss their period or have other menstrual irregularities.
  • Impaired immune system or healing problems.
  • Irritability, low mood and other mental health issues.
  • Maintaining excessive exercise habits despite weather, fatigue, social life or other obligations.
  • The disappearance of large amounts of food.
woman looking at herself in the mirror

How can you support young people?

You can support young people experiencing an eating disorder by:

  • Using this article and the accompanying Safeguarding Factsheet to understand the issue.  
  • Recognising that eating disorders are complex mental health conditions and the young people dealing with them deserve the support of their family, friends and wider community. 
  • Talking to the child in your care about what is worrying them in a place where they feel safe. Try not centre the conversation on food or weight. While this may be necessary to bring up, it is important that conversations remain centred on how they feel. 
  • Avoiding an emotional response. Try not to get angry, disheartened, or upset if they respond in an angry or defensive matter. Reassure them that you are there to support them whenever they are ready to speak to you. 
  • Recognising that eating disorders are not a choice and can affect a young person regardless of body shape, gender, or weight.  
  • Helping the young person in your care to engage with their support network, and to seek medical attention.  
  • Being aware of the need for healthy social media habits, particularly if a young person is exposed to unhelpful content.   
     

Information Advice and Guidance

In a medical emergency please dial 999 (emergency number)

BEAT Eating Disorders Charity
BEAT: Getting help for yourself
BEAT: Advice if you’re worried about a pupil 
BEAT: Eating disorders: a guide for friends and family
BEAT: Supporting someone with an eating disorder
BEAT: Advice on seeking treatment for an eating disorder 

NHS: Advice for Parents on eating disorders
NHS: Learn more about eating disorders
NHS: Advice on supporting someone with an eating disorder 

 

Parents/Carers and Safeguarding Professionals can use the NSPCCs child protection helpline for help, advice and guidance.  

In a medical emergency please dial 999 (emergency number)

 

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Safeguarding Factsheet: Eating Disorders

For teachers, safeguarding professionals and parents/carers, our Safeguarding Factsheet provides you with the information you need to support young people living with an eating disorder.
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