Eating disorders spike in COVID-19 pandemic; children, young adults most impacted, UNC expert says

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — When it comes to mental health, many of us will feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for a long time.

Doctors say eating disorders have spiked during the past year, with as much as a 40 percent increase in people seeking help.

Katie Regittko has struggled for years with an eating disorder. Before the pandemic, things were going better — then came the quarantines.

“When it first started things got really bad,” recalled Regittko. “The isolation was a really big factor.”

The loss of an in-person support system was hard.

“Not being able to see them in person and not really having as much of a way to make more friends or meet new people, that’s been kind of difficult,” explained Regittko.

Dr. Christine Peat, director of the National Center of Excellence for Eating Disorders, based at UNC-Chapel Hill, says the program has seen a big increase in people who need help.

“We’re probably tracking somewhere between a 30% and 40% increase in referral volume,” she said. “I would say the majority of those are adolescents, so we are seeing a real spike when it comes to kids.”

She says stress, isolation, and anxiety can contribute to eating disorders.

“Eating disorders are these conditions that really tend to thrive in secrecy, and when you are at home and you’re a teenager and you’re wanting to spend more time in your room and kind of isolating from family, plus you add in all the stress, you can have the opportunity there for an eating disorder to kind of sprout,” she noted.

Peat has also seen people who were in recovery, relapse with the stress of the pandemic.

Eating disorders won’t just go away because COVID-19 restrictions are easing.

“There’s every indication that the mental health implications of this pandemic are going to be a really long term,” said Peat.

Regittko says the pandemic has brought a lot of ups and downs. Fortunately, things have gotten easier lately, but recovery is always a work in progress.

A number of eating disorder centers have waiting lists right now because demand is so high. If you or someone you know is struggling, you can find help here.

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