The number of people seeking treatment for eating disorders has been increasing year over year for the past decades. For the most part, this has been at a pretty steady rate of slightly less than 1% per month. A new quantitative study found that this number jumped significantly in 2020 and 2021 when concerns over COVID and the effects of lockdowns and disruptions to day to day life were at their peak.
This study offers some important insight into changes around eating disorders and expected experiences in the coming years.
Recent and Expected Rates of Eating Disorders
This study specifically looked at the number of hospitalizations for eating disorders which, while certainly less than the number of total diagnoses and less than the total number of people who experience an eating disorder, gives evidence to the overall trend in the number of eating disorders experienced each year.
This number has gone up month over month for many years, largely due to increased social pressure from things like social media and advertising. Eating disorders affect both women and men, although young women are significantly more affected than other populations.
The study found no significant change in this data. Rather, it found that the average increase in people seeking treatment for an eating disorder month over month in previous years was less than 1%. In 2020 and 2021, that jumped to over 7%.
This represents an immense increase in the number of people experiencing eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia, and the reasons why this might have occurred in those two years include:
- Increased Mental Health Conditions – Many people experienced increased anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns in 2020 and 2021 as a result of the significant changes and uncertainty occurring at that time. These conditions often correlate with eating disorders. Controlling food intake to the extremes of an eating disorder may have also provided many people a sense of control during a time when they felt otherwise out of control.
- Food Scarcity Issues – Due to supply chain disruptions and panic, there were many times throughout the pandemic when food was not readily available. This has been shown to trigger disordered eating in some individuals as uncertainty forces a preoccupation with food and what and when people are eating.
- Disruptions to Routines – When at home orders were first put into place, they caused significant disruption to people’s routines. The shift, when coupled with other factors like uncertainty and lack of usual distractions, may have provided the right environment for some people to develop an eating disorder.
Another positive potential factor in the increase of eating disorder treatments is the increase in the number of people seeking help. While this does not account for all or even a majority of the increase in people seeking treatments, in recent years, seeking mental health services has been more encouraged and accepted, so some of the increase in diagnosis and treatment will result from more people coming forward to find a solution rather than living silently with an eating disorder.
Regardless of the cause of increased eating disorders, the study also found that while the month over month increase in those receiving treatment has diminished somewhat, it has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. Coupled with the fact that the physical and mental health effects of an eating disorder can take several years to recover from.
This study indicates that we are likely to continue to see increased rates of eating disorders over the coming years. Being aware of the symptoms of eating disorders and seeking help when you feel impacted, or believe your teenager or another family may be dealing with an eating disorder, will be the best way to prevent any extreme health challenges and speed the path to recovery.
Dr. Sehdev at Aware Behavioral Health offers outpatient eating disorder treatment in Dallas. Working with teens and adults of all ages, we can support you in the recovery process and help you rebuild your mental and physical health after an eating disorder or other mental health challenge. Call our team to learn more about our treatment options.