Eating Disorders in this Pandemic Time

The Covid-19 crisis has proven to be a dramatic and unprecedented global medical and mental health crisis.  We’re all struggling to varying degrees with loss, disruption, and/or financial worry.  And for those who grapple with eating and body image concerns, the Covid fallout adds yet another challenging dimension.

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) experienced a 78% increase in calls to their help line in March and April in the early weeks of the pandemic.  Crisis Text Line, a nonprofit organization providing mental health support via text reported a 75% increase in outreach relating to eating struggles within that same period.

A New York Times article published this week, Disordered Eating in a Disordered Time, captured the perfect storm of factors coming together to make this a particularly difficult time for those who manage eating and weight concerns.

  • Routine and regularity are cornerstones to stable eating and central to the recovery process. Our routines have had to be restructured completely as we’ve adjusted to sheltering in place and in isolation of others.
  • Shelter in place means that many of us are separated from our support networks.  Some in our community are isolating alone. Video and phone while helpful, are poor substitutes for human face-to-face connection. We can’t even exchange a smile with a stranger in passing since we’re all concealed behind masks.
  • Those who have struggled with anxiety before the pandemic, will experience an exacerbation of anxiety symptoms under the current circumstances.  A study from the National Center for Health Statistics, shows that in the face of the pandemic, one-third of Americans are exhibiting signs of clinical depression or anxiety. And this data represents conditions prior to May 19th – so well before the dramatic global events in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd.
  • Food access has been disrupted.  Simply securing groceries is a challenge and stressor for all of us right now.  For those with eating disorders, grocery shopping pre-pandemic would be anxiety-provoking but now we add in dodging others in masks, navigating lines and at times shortages of certain staples.
  • Social media can be highly triggering for those with eating disorders. With our eyes on our devices now more than ever, we’re bombarded by curated images and promotion of every exercise routine under the sun.  There are inappropriate jokes about weight gain during the pandemic.  As we’re over-exposed to these messages, we’re all the more vulnerable to the challenges they present to our emotional stability.

Our team at Columbus Park has been working to support our community through this crisis.  We swiftly moved all of our services to video so that treatment seamlessly continued for current patients and remained a viable option for new patients coming in.   Through March and April, we hosted a free initiative called “Meet and Eat Together.”  Meet and Eat Together video sessions are live therapeutic meals designed to replicate the supported meal structure offered in a treatment setting.  Tens of thousands of viewers joined in to participate; the feedback was extraordinary.  We now have a vast permanent library of meal support videos available on our website.  Each installment features a different guest, joining Columbus Park Clinical Director, Melissa Gerson, LCSW, for a lunch meal.  Facilitators share how they selected and portioned their meals, they set an intention for the meal, they eat and chat (interview style, covering relevant –inspiring, informative, engaging – eating disorder-related topics) through the dining component and then teach at least one coping skill before the hour’s end.  The wide range of guests include leaders in the field of eating disorders, therapists, dietitians, CEO’s and ED advocates sharing their own recovery stories.  Our hope is that these videos can serve as support tools ongoing for those in our community and that they are used at mealtime for added inspiration, guidance and strength.  While not a replacement for real life support, the sessions are an ideal supplement.

The Covid crisis is far from over and we will be managing the fallout from this catastrophic event for years to come.  That said, we have found hope in the many ways that the mental health community has rallied to accommodate the unprecedented situation and forge ahead together.  For more information about resources for individuals with eating disorders, consider reaching out to the following organizations leading the support effort in our field:

National Eating Disorders Association

The Alliance for Eating Disorder Awareness

National Association for Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

Project Heal