Why has the ongoing pandemic caused a surge in 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 has likely exacerbated new and existing mental health conditions.  

The isolation and loneliness many young people are experiencing means that they may turn to disordered eating behaviours as a means of controlling their feelings and attempting to cope. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health have previously warned of a significant rise of cases, citing a national trend across the UK. Data released by The Royal College of Psychiatrists has also shown a 128% increase in the number of young people waiting for treatment compared with last year.  

The increase in time spent online has also meant that young people are now more likely to be exposed to content that encourages poor self-esteem and disordered eating behaviours. 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.  

Those living with a new or existing eating disorders during a national lockdown may also feel reluctant to seek support from health professionalsviewing COVID-19 patients as priority and their situation not ‘extreme’ enough to warrant putting more pressure on the NHS. The lack of access to in-person counselling sessions has also likely contributed to the relapse of those in recovery for eating disordersWe have also seen a surge in young people using peer support to cope with difficult and distressing feelings during the pandemic.  

What is an Eating Disorder?

An eating disorder is a mental health condition where someone has an unhealthy relationship with foodThis 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   

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. 
  • Talk to the child in your care about what is worrying them to understand what may be causing these feelings. 
  • Understanding what language or topics may be unhelpful to discuss with a young person who is struggling with their relationship with food. 
  • 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.  
  • Be aware of the need for healthy social media habits particularly if a young person is exposed to unhelpful content 
  • Attending our upcoming Staying Safe Online Advanced Training – which covers all elements of hidden risks online.  
     

 

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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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