Covid-19 and eating disorders: a hidden pandemic

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Content warning: this article discusses eating disorders which some readers may find upsetting.

If you’ve logged onto social media since it was announced lockdown restrictions will be lifted on 21st June, you’re likely to have seen posts about losing weight in time for the upcoming ‘#hotgirlsummer’. These memes are extremely harmful, pressuring people to lose weight and exacerbating eating disorders. Lockdown has created a difficult situation for those experiencing eating disorders.

In September 2020, Eating Disorder Charity Beat reported that demand for its helpline services in the previous six months had increased by 97% on the same period the previous year. 28% of those who reached out between May-July 2020 cited Covid-19 as a trigger for relapse or the development of eating disorders. Adding to these challenging circumstances, social media posts about weight loss post-lockdown continue to promote negative body images.

The situation is particularly precarious for university students and young people in general, who’re at higher risk of developing eating disorders. According to Mental Health Charity Student Minds, incidence rates for anorexia nervosa are highest among females in the 15-19 age group.

However, this only reflects the moment of detection. Student Minds states that many in their late teens and early twenties will still be suffering from anorexia. Additionally, Student Minds says that the incidence rate for bulimia is highest between the ages of 20 and 22. 

Therefore, it’s clear that the risk of university students developing these particular eating disorders is significant. Beat explains that lifestyle changes attached to starting a new life away from home, such as new eating routines, make uni students particularly vulnerable to eating disorders.

87% of participants in a study of people experiencing, or in recovery from, an eating disorder reported a worsening of their symptoms because of the pandemic

When Beat asked university students with eating disorders about their experiences, “32% said they were diagnosed with an eating disorder at university, 39% had to drop out or take a break from studies, and 69% had difficulties accessing treatment and support”. It is clear from these statistics that universities need to provide more support for those with eating disorders. 

This crisis will have only worsened since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. Research from Northumbria University indicates that 87% of participants in a study of people experiencing, or in recovery from, an eating disorder reported a worsening of their symptoms because of the pandemic. 

There is an obvious association with social media. Northumbria’s study indicated that not only was restricted access to treatment because of the pandemic resulting in eating disorder symptoms worsening but so was social media content. 

According to an article on the Northumbria University website on the results of the study, “media coverage and social media posts were also cited as a source of anxiety due to the general population’s preoccupation with food, weight gain, and exercise”. 

Those surveyed said and exercise have become more dominant forces on social media due to the pandemic. Beat has added a page on their website in response to this issue, acknowledging the proliferation of content about losing weight after lockdown. They encourage people to take breaks from the news or social media if these are having a negative effect on their body image or relationship with food.

More than anything, the importance of kindness and understanding as we move out of lockdown cannot be overstated

Beat suggests curating a more positive social media feed by interacting more with positive accounts and muting or unfollowing any which promote a negative body image. This is an important step to encouraging a more positive body image but Beat emphasises the need for people to access support. 

Durham University has a Beat society, which has a body-positive Instagram account to follow and resources for students to access. Additionally, charities like Mind or Beat offer support, including Beat’s Studentline. 

From a healthcare perspective, those suffering with eating disorders can contact their GP or access NHS resources. Within the University, students can access the counselling service and their college student support or welfare team. If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder or body dysmorphia, you are encouraged to use these resources. 

However, social media’s response to the lifting of lockdown restrictions needs to change. It has to be more mindful of those experiencing eating disorders, those in recovery, and those at risk of eating disorders, as well as being inclusive of all body shapes. 

More than anything, the importance of kindness and understanding as we move out of lockdown cannot be overstated. Please remember that you do not ‘need’ to lose weight after lockdown, particularly after the emotionally and psychologically draining experience of lockdown and the coronavirus pandemic.

Image: I Yunmai via Unsplash

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