It is no secret that 2020, and the ensuing pandemic of the novel coronavirus, has thrown every one’s mental health for a loop. Even people who do not suffer from mental illness have found themselves struggling with day to day anxiety. In the chaos that has abounded since the national quarantine in March, Americans with mental health disorders have had their illnesses exacerbated by economic hardship, disruption of routine, and travel restrictions, as well as isolation from beloved family and friends. One such sublet of people are those who suffer from eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating. In a world where the stigma around mental health and eating disorders is still palpable, it is easy to see why people who suffer from such diseases have had their issues ramped up within the past six months.
Why has this year been so hard?
Although the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been the most popular and constant headliner for 2020, it is not the only stressful event that has occurred. Anyone with access to a news station can attest to the hardship that the entire year has brought. A number of challenges have been faced, between the social debates about the efficacy of masks, grassroots activism through riots and protests, and intense political turmoil with the election looming only two months away. Combining all of these issues with the pandemic and national lockdown has been a cocktail of emotions for mental health sufferers.
Young people in particular have been documenting their struggles during the pandemic, with many reporting that they feel “untethered” “claustrophobic,” and “stressed.” People with eating disorders are no different; they have found themselves trapped with their illness amidst a difficult time in history. Like so many others who struggle with these disorders, maintaining a solid grasp on their mental state with the current climate of the world has been interesting, to say the least.
How has COVID-19 impacted people with eating disorders?
Men and women alike who suffer from eating disorders have found their symptoms magnified. Anorexia sufferers have reported even more restricted food intake, and people with binge-eating disorders have described an uptick of binging episodes. The lockdown necessary in order to protect people from COVID-19 has cut people off from their support systems that helped them deal with their disorders. Isolation is the big negative factor here, with Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University School of Medicine, stating that since behaviors such as eating disorders thrive in the shadows due to the shame around it, it is no wonder that signs and symptoms of these disorders have been heightened since the onset of the quarantine.
In lieu of physical interactions, many people have taken to online socialization in order to stay connected to others. Although this can certainly be a useful tool, it can be detrimental to the mental health of people who suffer from eating disorders. There are numerous articles around the internet that promote people to lose their “COVID weight,” which is a harmful message in and of itself but even more so for people who have body image issues. Food insecurity as a result of the pandemic is also an issue. Although 37 million people were reported to be food insecure even before the pandemic, there is a prediction that that number will soar to a whopping 54 million Americans; this can especially become an issue in states where the economy is driven by tourism (or lack thereof). The potential scarcity around foods can lead to people either heavily stocking up their kitchens or relapsing into an episode of binging.
What does the future hold?
It is tough to say what the future holds when things have been changing so quickly. Although we do not know how long COVID-19 will stick around for, the silver lining of the whole situation has been the more positive light shined on mental health. Pushes to break the stigma have existed long before COVID, however, it finally seems as if the negativity surrounding mental health and eating disorders has finally begun to crack. The pandemic has shown us that the constant pressure for productivity is toxic and unnecessary and has taught people to become more compassionate when it comes to considering other peoples’ plights. This is great news for people who suffer from eating disorders, as they may begin to feel more comfortable being open about their struggles and therefore forming a stronger community base.
How can we help?
If you or someone you love is suffering from an eating disorder such as bulimia, anorexia, or binge-eating, it is important that you talk about your/their disorder with someone you trust. Since illnesses such as these thrive in isolation, discussing the struggles you are facing will help you feel less alone and more supported. If you feel like you would benefit from professional help, there are plenty of mental health counselors and therapists who are offering teletherapy services.
With social distance restrictions loosening, it may be beneficial to meet up with some friends if you are all comfortable and not feeling sick. While there seems like there is a lot of things to focus on right now, the most important thing is keeping yourself safe, sane, and healthy. Since things may be difficult for a significant amount of time, remember that you are never alone and there is undoubtedly a support system of people you love that are there for you when you need them. If you are feeling as if your mental health is slipping, and you have thoughts of hurting yourself, it is important to speak with a mental health professional immediately.