The number of under 20s being admitted to inpatient care for eating disorders has reached an all time high. The NHS reported a severe shortage of beds as community services struggle to match the demand. Danielle Panton and Harriet Finlayson, two mental health experts from Bupa UK spoke to us about some of their recent research and on some simple ways we can address the increase in eating disorders among young people.
Content warning: This article discusses eating disorders and eating behaviours.
The Bupa UK study findings
The study has revealed:
- 46% of teens surveyed altered their eating habits during lockdown
- 84% admitted to restricting the food they ate for a sense of control
- 41% reported the same feeling of control when they ate more
- 132% increase for Google searches of ‘types of eating disorders’ over the last year
The Covid-19 pandemic has had an inescapable impact on the nations wellbeing and mental health. Since the Mental Health Foundation (MHF) published its initial phase of a longitudinal study on the state of the nation’s mental health, it has been clear that young people have experienced some of the most adverse mental health implications.
Focusing specifically on eating disorders, the rise in instances of people living with this disorder requiring inpatient care was also predicted by RcPscyh back in February. Dr Agnes Ayton of RcPscyh reported that in her local area of Oxford, the number of patients admitted for urgent referrals had gone up by 20% to 80% during the pandemic.
For many living with an eating disorder, the environment of the pandemic has exacerbated an already existing condition. Feeling a loss of control, anxiety and panic over all the possible outcomes of the pandemic and the resulting fallout (e.g unemployment, poor mental health, losing loved ones) can all be triggers for people with eating disorders.
Dr Ayton from RcPscyh previously said that in order to tackle this “tsunami” of eating disorders, there needs to be an emphasis on “early intervention” and that to achieve this “all frontline healthcare professionals should be trained in identifying the warning signs of eating disorders.”
The spotlight on mental health, such as eating disorders has meant that many professionals are coming forward, echoing the thoughts of Dr Ayton. The benefit of this is that there is a wealth of knowledge being distributed, so that not only healthcare professionals can identify warning signs and work towards this “early intervention”, but us at home can too.
- See also: 'How can we better safeguard people living with eating disorders?'
- See also: 'Royal College of Psychiatry warns children are “bearing the brunt” of the pandemic'
- See also: 'The Mental Health Foundation: mental health in the year of the pandemic'
Danielle and Harriet Finlayson of Bupa UK shared some thoughts with us and their advice for parents on warning signs, information on eating disorder recovery and where people can access support:
“During the uncertainty of lockdown, many young people have spent more time outside of their normal routine too, with social media being a common go-to for many to ‘pass the time’. Increased social media use puts you at a risk of looking at unhelpful and negative social media accounts, which further fuels any mental health struggles.”
Why has there been a rise in eating disorders?
Specialist Mental Health Nurse Adviser Harriet Finlayson said:
“Covid-19 may have made eating difficulties worse for some children and young people because of increased anxiety, stress, and a change in their usual routine. Changing your eating habits every now and again is natural. But if food and eating feels like it’s taking over your child’s life, it may develop into a disorder.
With lockdown forcing so many of us to cancel plans, social media became a common go-to for many to ‘pass the time’. Increased social media use can put children at a risk of looking at unhelpful and negative social media accounts, which can further fuel any mental health struggles.
There is also some evidence that those with disordered eating have found lockdown problematic because they have different routines to usual, as well as constant access to food. This is particularly true for people who eat or restrict foods in response to stress. Spending a lot of time together may also mean that you have noticed eating habits in your child that you hadn’t before.”
How to talk to young people about eating disorders
Danielle Panton, also a Specialist Mental Health Nurse Adviser for Bupa UK on how to talk to the child or young person in your life about concerns around a possible eating disorder:
“Find a calm, quiet space. Your first step should be to create a safe space where your child will feel most comfortable. It doesn’t always have to be a face-to-face conversation, as these can be overwhelming and difficult. Instead, there are alternative ways to communicate, such as a text message or letter. This can also give your child greater control over how they want to respond, and what they respond with.
"Validate their feelings. Even if you don’t understand what they’re going through, it’s important to validate your child’s feelings. Avoid giving advice or criticism because this could prevent your child from opening up. Simply let them know that they’re being heard."
"When speaking with your child, try to stick to the facts of what has been observed in the changing of eating habits and behaviours rather than making assumptions. Don’t minimise their feelings or try to brush them off, either."
"Listen to their worries. You could ask your child if there’s anything that’s making them feel anxious or stressed which is having an impact on their eating habits. Opening up can take time, but it’s important to remain calm and listen to them without judgement."
"Offer support. With the right eating disorder support and guidance, your family can regain your health and wellbeing. It’s crucial to find the treatment that works best for your child, as it can help them develop healthy, balanced eating patterns in the long-term."
"An important part of finding suitable treatment is first speaking to your doctor. They will be able to refer you to specialist eating disorder support for both your child and your family."
"Look after yourself. You may feel frustrated that your child isn’t eating healthily, feel worried that it’s happening because of something you’ve done, or feel like you’re not doing enough to help them get better. It’s a tough time for everyone, but try to not blame yourself for the situation and make sure you put aside some time for yourself and your mental health – it could be something as simple as a good workout, or reading a book.”
For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this piece, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677.
NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visit eating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040.