Dr Kate Middleton urges us to consider the rise in eating disorders there have been among our young people
Concerns about the mental health impact the pandemic and lockdown have had on teenagers and young adults are widespread, and rises have been reported in general distress, anxiety and also in conditions like self-harm in this particular group. But with the focus often on girls who are struggling, it’s important to remember that mental health issues can also affect boys – particularly when it comes to one condition where the rate of urgent referrals have more than doubled during 2020: eating disorders.
Why this rise may be happening
Eating disorders have long been recognised to be associated with a need to increase control, with sufferers often talking about how their attempt to lose weight helps them manage anxiety or other emotions, and to feel more in control in the midst of other challenges they feel less able to change or manage. Many experts suggest that the disruption to normal life, combined with the emotions triggered by the isolation of the pandemic, lie behind this concerning rise in the numbers of young people struggling with disordered eating.
Many think of eating disorders as only affecting girls and women, but that is simply a stereotype that can result in boys who are struggling getting overlooked. With many boys tending to prefer ‘active’ play, the impact of lockdown restrictions had a big impact on many, affecting weight and appetite as their physical activity dramatically dropped. Boys may express anxiety over their weight in different ways to girls, feeling pressure to be strong, lean and muscly and focusing on exercise and weight training as much as they do dietary restriction. This can mean problems go un-noticed or take longer to be recognised, even among medical professionals.
Learning how best to offer support
So how should those concerned for teenagers and young people – both boys and girls – react to the worrying rise in disordered eating? It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of eating disorders, but also to be aware they may be less obvious than you expect.
Changes to eating habits, refusing to eat with the family or becoming obsessive or restrictive about diet may all be signs of something deeper going on. Not all sufferers lose weight, and it may be hard to notice weight loss until it has become dramatic. However emotional responses related to food may be more evident: becoming upset or anxious about eating, arguments or conflict over mealtimes. Watch out too for obsessive or excessive exercise, particularly in a season where there has been so much emphasis on this being a good thing to do during lockdowns. And remember that younger children and teens shouldn’t be on strict ‘diets’: if there are genuine concerns over weight gain or eating issues it is important to get advice from your GP or practice nurse.
Perhaps the most important message about eating disorders is this: recovery is possible. Early intervention is important, so having good conversations about the things that are worrying teens and young people can help. But if there are more significant concerns, seeking advice and support from the GP is a crucial first step.
For more help, support and information
Here are some helpful organisations and their websites:
Headstrong is an online space designed for young people, talking about the challenges of 21st century life and the emotions that go along with it – including the global pandemic.
TasteLife is a national Christian organisation providing support and advice for those struggling with eating disorders. They also produce resources to use in schools and with young people, which are designed to prevent issues with food developing into something more serious.
Anorexia & Bulimia Care is a national Christian organisation working with sufferers of eating disorders and those who support them, through phone lines, online support and linking sufferers and their families with those who have themselves recovered.