COVID-19 quarantine sparks concern of eating disorder crisis

By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — After struggling for years with disordered eating and more recently a severe eating disorder, Kwolanne Dina Felix, a college junior in New York City, realized early this year that the eating disorder had taken over her life and she was ready to seek recovery.

Then, the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and, like so many others with eating disorders, Felix saw her condition spiral out of control.

“I tried to go into the pandemic with a sense of recovery, but that wasn’t really the case,” she told ABC News’ Good Morning America. “Eating disorders are about routine and control and I was in a place where I was completely out of control.”

“When the world is spiraling out of control, I felt like the only control I had was whether to not eat ice cream,” Felix explained. “I found myself being a lot more restrictive … I really doubled down on my habits.”

Felix, 21, said the stay-at-home orders and strict social distancing brought on by the pandemic also stripped her of the social support that may have helped her eating disorder recovery in more normal times.

Stuck in isolation in New York City, she described having a “crippling fear” about weight gain, brought on in part by the “COVID 15” and “COVID 19” weight gain memes that circulated on social media.

“The ‘COVID 15’ was such widespread hysteria,” Felix said. “I had to unfollow people and celebrities who were talking about that.”

During the height of the pandemic, Felix said she did her best by following body positive accounts on social media and relying on virtual support through sites like The Unplug Collective, a platform that allows Black women to speak openly about mental health and body discrimination.

Social media influencer Charli D’Amelio, 16, a TikTok star, opened up about her own eating disorder during the pandemic. When she included a swipe-up link to the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA), the association saw a 300% increase in website traffic, according to a spokesperson.

“I’ve always tried to use my voice when it comes to issues surrounding body image, but I’ve never talked about my own struggles with eating disorders,” D’Amelio shared in an Instagram story earlier this month. “It’s so uncomfortable to admit to even your closest friend and family, let alone the world. I’ve been afraid to share that i have an eating disorder, but ultimately i hope that by sharing this i can help someone else.”

“I know disorders are something that so many other people are also battling behind closed doors,” she added.

Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the NEDA has reported a spike of more than 70% in the number of calls and online chat inquiries to its hotline compared to the same time period last year.

“This has been a time of heightened anxiety for everyone,” NEDA’s CEO Claire Mysko told GMA. “For people with eating disorders, either those who are actively struggling or those who are pursuing recovery, there’s an added stressor with the pandemic.”

Jillian Lampert, Ph.D., chief strategy officer of The Emily Program, a national network of eating disorder treatment centers, said the program has seen inquiries both online and by phone “fly off the charts” during the pandemic.

“We’re seeing people calling now in a more acute, intense stage [of an eating disorder],” she said. “So we’re seeing not only are more people calling, but more people are calling in a more crisis situation.”

The nature of the pandemic, with its uncertainty and isolation, makes it one that “checks every box” for putting people at a higher risk for eating disorders, according to Lampert.

Mysko points to the isolating nature of the pandemic — which has forced people to stay home and forced eating disorder treatments to go virtual — as a particularly damaging element.

“We know that eating disorders strive with isolation,” she said. “The public health guidelines with social distancing really stand in contrast to what we learn in recovery, which is all about connection and standing outside of that isolation.”

In addition to isolation, the pandemic has brought on issues of food insecurity and fears for people, a disruption from norms and routines, stress related to job and financial woes and social pressure to reinvent one’s self during quarantine, all of which can be contributing factors to eating disorders, experts say.

The pandemic has also brought on a mental health crisis in the U.S., of which eating disorders are a major part, according to Mysko.

“Eating disorders are very complex mental health issues with a strong relation to anxiety, depression, past histories of trauma and substance abuse,” she said. “We really need to talk about them as part of this mental health crisis.”

Felix — who sought in-person treatment once New York City began to reopen — said she learned firsthand during the pandemic that her eating disorder was a mental health concern, one that was taking over her life.

“When people talk about eating disorders, they talk about it like it’s a diet,” said Felix. “It’s like, no, eating disorders have [one of] the highest mortality rates of any mental health disorder.”

Eating disorders are second only to opioid overdose as the deadliest mental illness, with eating disorders responsible for one death every 52 minutes in the United States, according to data shared by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.

Eating disorders are treatable, especially if treatment is sought early, which is why, despite the alarming spike in inquiries, Mysko is glad to see so many people reaching out for help.

“We often hear from people who have waited a very long time [to seek help] because they don’t feel their experience is validated or it doesn’t fit into the stereotypical narrative,” she said. “If you’ve never been in treatment or never reached out for help, that can be scary.”

“We want to stress that there is help out there. There are options. There is support,” added Mysko. “Recovery is not canceled.”

If you or someone you know is battling an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) at 1-800-931-2237 or NationalEatingDisorders.org.

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