Eating disorders among children in the UK have risen sharply during the CCP virus pandemic, child health experts have said, attributing it in part to increased stress, isolation, and increased social media use.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said on Monday that a “huge rise in cases of anorexia nervosa and other food restriction disorders” among children compared to last year had been reported by paediatricians around the country, particularly in the past few months.
“They all put this down to the effects of the pandemic on young people’s lives,” the College said in a statement.
Some paediatricians have seen a two-, three-, or four-fold increase in cases of some eating disorders in children over the last year.
Dr. Simon Chapman, a consultant paediatrician at King’s College Hospital and South London and the Maudsley, said he had been busier than he had ever been in 10 years of treating children with eating disorders.
“Referrals since March have tripled. It has been made harder during the pandemic because assessments and treatment have to be done through a screen,” he said.
Dr. Jonathan Rabbs, a consultant paediatrician in Sussex, said their service has seen around 100 referrals a month for the past two months, almost 10 times more than the service was designed to support.
“Possibly half the cases are not eating disorders per se but varying forms of hunger strike or food restricting due to anxiety, trauma, Autism Spectrum Conditions, or social issues and care seeking behaviour,” he said.
Toxic Mix of Factors
The College cited a number of factors that are thought to have contributed to the rise in cases.
These include “increased stress, deterioration in young people’s mental health, and an intense focus for some on eating and exercise during the pandemic.”
Isolation from peers during school closures, cancellation of exams and extracurricular activities, and an “increased use of social media with young people concentrating on unrealistic ideas of body image” were among the long list of causative factors detailed by the College.
Forced quarantine, especially among new university students, worries about family finances, the illness and death of loved ones, and young people fearing catching the virus themselves also contributed, the College said.
“We are extremely concerned about many children and teenagers’ wellbeing because of the pandemic,” Dr. Karen Street, a consultant paediatrician and an officer for child mental health at the College, said. “Many of them are just not coping.”
Eating disorders are often related to a need for control, Street explained, which is what many young people feel they have lost during the pandemic.
“Many have described needing a focus and goals, which, in the absence of anything else, has for some centred around eating and exercise,” she said.
Parents Should Trust Their Instincts
Street advised parents who notice a concerning difference in the way their child or teenager approaches food and exercise to talk to them about what is normal and what is not. She warned, however, that “often, those with eating disorders will try to convince you all is okay.”
Nevertheless, parents should trust their instincts and seek help, she said. Early signs to look out for include marked changes in eating behaviour, exercise patterns, and weight, particularly over the holiday season.
“Christmas can be a stressful time for those struggling with issues around food,” the College said. “At the same time, new year is when there is often a lot of talk of dieting and exercise, with some people embarking on new year’s resolutions involving crash dieting or exercising more than is healthy.”
The College’s concerns over the holiday season were echoed a week before Christmas by Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity.
“Christmas with an eating disorder is always hard but with restrictions, bubbles and tiers this will be the toughest ever,” Beat wrote on Twitter.
NHS Digital data for England showed that hospital admissions prior to the pandemic were already increasing. For the 2019-20 financial year there were 4,957 hospital admissions of children under 18 with eating disorders, which was up 9 percent from 2018-19.
Most of those were teenagers, but there were 418 admissions in 2019-20 of 10- to 12-year-olds, almost half of whom were girls suffering from anorexia nervosa, and admissions of some under 10s with various eating disorders.
The College said that reduced access to face-to-face medical consultations during the pandemic are thought to have caused more young people affected by eating disorders to become seriously ill before being treated.
“Paediatricians reported seeing children and teenagers being brought into emergency departments in need of immediate admission to hospital for physical stabilisation and re-feeding,” the College said.
NHS England did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For anyone concerned about themselves or their child, Beat is open over the festive season and can be contacted on 0808 801 0711 or emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org