Eating Disorders Among Teens More Severe Than Ever

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Teen eating disorders have become more rampant and severe than ever before. Hospitalizations for eating disorders doubled among adolescent girls during the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although most teenagers have resumed in-person school, sports, and social activities, eating disorders, particularly anorexia, remain at an all-time high.

Eating disorder-related health visits among people younger than 17 have more than doubled in the past five years, according to Trilliant Health’s report. Visits increased by 107.4% across all eating disorders from 2018 to mid-2022, from approximately 50,000 to over 100,000 visits. Visits for anorexia nervosa, which has the highest death rate among mental illnesses, increased by 129.26%.

The pandemic exacerbated depression and anxiety, increasing the risk of developing or exacerbating eating disorders. Although visits for eating disorders have decreased since peaking in 2021, they are still below pre-pandemic levels. Younger patients are struggling with post-COVID issues such as loss and isolation, resulting in more severe symptoms when seeking treatment.

According to Melissa Freizinger, Associate Director of the eating disorder program at Boston Children’s Hospital, young patients with eating disorders are now sicker and more complex than before, with both physical and mental symptoms becoming more severe. Even after the pandemic, a significant number of teens require hospitalization for malnourishment. Unfortunately, many eating disorder specialists do not accept Medicaid or insurance, creating access barriers for underrepresented minority groups, particularly Black and Hispanic populations, who are more likely to have Medicaid or no health insurance.

Eating disorders are not limited to white, underweight females as commonly portrayed. Research reveals that eating disorders are prevalent among males, people with larger bodies, and racial and ethnic minority groups. A study conducted in 2006 shows that eating disorders are less likely to be recognized among underrepresented groups, with only 17% of Black women, 41% of Latina women, and 44% of White women accurately diagnosed with identical eating disorder symptoms.

Minority groups may experience certain types of eating disorders more frequently. As an example, studies have found that bulimia is more prevalent in Hispanic teenagers compared to their white counterparts, while binge-eating disorder is more prevalent among Black and Hispanic teenagers than among White teenagers. Moreover, a survey conducted in 2013 found that eating disorder behaviors occurred almost three times more often among transgender students.

Pre-pandemic, having social connections was beneficial for at-risk teens in avoiding developing eating disorders. However, pandemic lockdowns resulted in a loss of these connections, leaving young people feeling isolated and lonely due to remote learning and limited social interaction. The pandemic exacerbated the conditions that increase the likelihood of developing or worsening eating disorders.

Teenagers are experiencing more severe eating disorders due to the pandemic exacerbating risk factors such as anxiety and depression. It is crucial to raise awareness of the prevalence of eating disorders among teenagers, particularly those in underrepresented groups. Providing access to early intervention and effective treatment can make a significant difference in the lives of those struggling with these debilitating conditions.

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