U.S. hospitals experienced an alarming spike in the number of adolescents and young adults seeking care for eating disorders during the 2020 and 2021 pandemic lockdowns, according to a new study.
The study, which was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, analyzed monthly cases between January 2018 and December 2021 at 14 pediatric and children’s hospitals with treatment programs in all regions of the country.
It reported a “significant COVID-19 pandemic-related increase in both inpatient and outpatient” treatment for anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and other afflictions during the first two years of the pandemic.
“Given inadequate [eating disorder] care availability prior to the pandemic, the increased post-pandemic demand will likely outstrip available resources,” warns the study, conducted by a team of 23 public health researchers.
The 14 hospitals admitted 81 teens and young adults for inpatient eating disorder treatments in January 2018 and 109 in February 2020. Admissions rose to 163 in December 2020, to 208 in April 2021 and averaged 181 a month for the rest of last year.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the study shows the need for “long-ranged” policies that “consider impacts on all health outcomes” in future pandemics.
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“Social isolation takes a great mental toll and, for eating disorders, lack of in-person schooling and disruptions in therapy may have adversely impacted prevalence,” said Dr. Adalja, an infectious disease specialist who commented on the study.
The study found that monthly inpatient hospital admissions rose by 7.2% from the start of the pandemic through April 2021 — well above the 0.7% monthly increases they had averaged before the pandemic.
Outpatient assessments followed a similar pattern, even though quarantines initially kept people away.
The number of outpatient assessments for eating disorders was 195 in January 2018 and 254 in February 2020, with the monthly number “increasing slightly over time” before the pandemic.
That number rose to 274 outpatient assessments in December 2020, 425 in March 2021 and an average of 376 a month for the rest of last year, the study found.
“Such consequences during the pandemic, at a time when social engagement was few and far between, had dire mental health issues for many,” said Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, commenting on the study.
The study found that after a temporary drop in April 2020 due to shelter-at-home orders, the number of new outpatient assessments increased by an average of 21.3 a month through April 2021.
Clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association who teaches at Santa Clara University in California, said the study shows how jokes about gaining weight during quarantine masked a darker reality for young people.
“Eating disorders are often co-morbid with anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive challenges, and all worsen under stress,” Mr. Plante said. “So recent events in society, such as the pandemic, created a perfect storm for an uptick in eating disorders.”