On the two-year anniversary of COVID-19, we’re learning more about the impact of the pandemic on adolescent mental health, particularly eating disorders in kids and teens. There were more than four times the number of adolescents treated in the emergency department (ED) across the country for eating disorders in 2022 than in 2020, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that was released in February.
The study reported eating disorder ED visits for adolescents increased on average from nine visits per week in 2020, to 41 visits per week in 2021, and 38 visits per week during January 2022. These findings are in line with what The Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders (CTED) team at Children’s Minnesota has experienced in the past two years as well.
According to Jake Garin, MSW, LICSW, clinical social worker and psychotherapist at CTED, a record number of patients were admitted to our inpatient eating disorder medical stabilization program since 2020 – at times more than triple the number of adolescents that were admitted on average prior to the pandemic.
Causes of eating disorders
There are several contributing factors to the rise in adolescents with eating disorder symptoms. “The pandemic brought a reduced amount of daily structure and routine in the lives of many adolescents,” said Garin. “We know that changes in regular routines can often increase anxiety levels. Adolescents with anxiety disorders are more likely to experience eating disorder symptoms and behaviors, often as a method of coping with increased anxiety.”
The pandemic also disrupted in-person schooling and caused changes to eating schedules and physical activity. Physical and mental health changes may not have been noticed as quickly by school staff as they may have in the past when they were in-person.
“Although there are many factors that cause eating disorders, we know that dieting in adolescence is one of the strongest causes of developing symptoms of disordered eating and body image concerns,” said Garin. “Studies have shown a link between frequent social media use and an increase in body dysmorphia and eating disorder symptoms. Discussions regarding dieting and losing the ‘quarantine 15’ were common on the internet and social media platforms during lockdowns.”
Many families also lost their jobs and experienced more economic instability during the pandemic. Past research has shown a direct link between food scarcity and increased risk of eating disorders.
Signs of eating disorder behaviors
Eating disorders can be very dangerous illnesses. Symptoms to watch for are both physical and behavioral in nature. Some common symptoms of disordered eating include (but are not limited to):
- Significant weight loss over a short period of time.
- Increased negative comments/concerns about body image.
- Isolating from others more, especially during typical meal and snack times.
- Excessive/compulsive exercise (i.e., your child feels guilty for not being able to exercise at times).
- Finding significant amounts of uneaten food in your child’s room.
- Frequent trips to the bathroom after eating, suspicion of vomiting after eating.
- Increased irritability and anger, especially around topics that have to do with food or eating.
- Cutting out entire food groups and compulsively using calorie/nutrient counting applications.
How you can help
If you are even slightly concerned about the eating behaviors of your child or adolescent, you should contact their pediatrician as soon as possible. Their pediatrician can direct you to the type of help that is needed for your child, including Physician’s Access at Children’s Minnesota if your child needs inpatient care CTED due to medical complications from an eating disorder.
Awareness and education about mental health and eating disorders are also important. Parents and organizations that work closely with children and adolescents – including schools, pediatrician offices, youth sports programs, social service agencies, etc. – can use eating disorder awareness and educational tools developed by the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). NEDA also organizes awareness activities like walks, awareness weeks and body positive social media campaigns.
Get more information about care for eating disorders at Children’s Minnesota’s Center for the Treatment of Eating Disorders.