Eating disorders: ‘Pandemic created a perfect storm’ says doctor – symptoms to spot

PHE launches youth mental health advice website in 2020

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On the impact of the pandemic on eating disorders Dr Matthews said: “The pandemic created a perfect storm for people that may have had eating difficulties.”

This is because, said Dr Matthews: “Eating disorders grow in isolation. Sometimes it’s very secret personal behaviour and the pandemic enabled that a lot more of that…people weren’t going out for meals and entering those social environments that enable us to function differently.”

There is a significant body of evidence to suggest eating disorders are on the rise.

Several studies, both in the United States and the UK, have reported an increase in the number of young people suffering from eating disorders, a complex mental health condition requiring great caution and care to manage and treat.

Dr Matthews said the development of an eating disorder is not instantaneous.

“Nobody ever wakes up and wants an eating disorder, that’s never anyone’s intention.

“People start off aspiring for health and to exercise more…and then things spiral and get out of control and when there’s other pressures and mental health stresses around, all these things add up.”

When eating disorders in young people are discussed, social media is more often than not cited as a major factor.

Dr Matthews said: “It has an exacerbating effect”.

The impact of social media was recently covered in a BBC documentary analysing the impact of Instagram both on people who use the platform recreationally and ‘influencers’ who use it for the advertising of products.

Although originally designed as a force for good and now a home for entrepreneurial ‘Influencers’, it appeared the real influencer was in fact the social media platform.

On how the situation in regard to eating disorders was improved, Dr Matthews emphasised the need for increased awareness, discussion and education around the topic.

Social media, though not the cause of eating disorders, acts to accelerate the rate and intensity of suffering of those with a form of the condition.

It’s not just eating disorders that have gone up in the UK however; anxiety has risen too.

According to the Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index one third of 16–25-year-olds said they had never felt more alone.

Furthermore, 40 percent of respondents said they felt more anxious about socialising.

Unlike other studies on the effect of the pandemic on young people, Prince’s Trust Youth Index has the benefit of history with researchers able to compare the latest results with those taken from 2009, in process discovering emotional health has fallen from 67 points 13 years ago to 57 points.

Chief Executive of Prince’s Trust, Jonathan Townsend said: “This alarming downward spiral of anxiety, stress and lack of confidence for the future will impact young people today and in future generations”.

While the situation may seem bleak, times have changed and there is now a greater focus on mental health than there’s ever been.

As a result, even if there’s only a little, there is hope for the future.

The NHS lists a number of symptoms of eating disorders.

Symptoms include:

  • Dramatic weight loss
  • A person lying about how much they’ve eaten
  • A person eating a lot of food very quickly and going to the bathroom after they’ve eaten
  • Exercising a lot
  • Avoiding eating with others
  • Cutting food into small pieces or eating very slowly
  • Wearing clothes that high their weight loss.

If a person has an eating disorder the health body recommends seeing a GP as soon as possible. 

It also recommends the eating disorder charity Beat as a place for people to talk to an adviser about their health issues.

The adult helpline is 0808 801 0677 while the youth helpline is 0808 801 0711.

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