Psychiatrists warn the stress of the pandemic and loss of routine could trigger relapses
Life in lockdown has brought about unprecedented challenges for everyone. But for the 1.25 million sufferers of eating disorders in the UK, these are especially tough times.
The eating disorder charity BEAT has reported a 30 per cent spike in calls to its helpline since lockdown began.
Eating disorders are dangerous during lockdown
Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the most prevalent eating disorders.
Anorexia is the deadliest mental illness in the world. Center for Discovery, which offers treatment for those with eating disorders, projects that 20 per cent of sufferers will die within 20 years of developing the illness.
For those in recovery, the lockdown presents acute difficulties and increased risk of relapse.
Clinical psychologist Debbie Beckerman explains: “The stress of being confined, loss of routine and fear of the unknown take sufferers of eating disorders into unchartered territory.”
Jessica Claire was diagnosed with anorexia in 2007 at the young age of 13. She was hospitalised on a drip and spent several months recovering at Rhodes Farm, the UK’s largest private clinic for children with eating disorders in north London.
She explains her difficulties during lockdown.
“I’m always around food and the temptation to snack is constant and I’ve had several binge eating episodes. It’s made things tougher but I’m in touch with my eating therapist.”Jessica Claire
Difficulties accessing treatment
For those unable to access private treatment, there are even more difficulties.
The NHS missed their 2020 target of reducing treatment waiting times for 95 per cent of all “children and young people” eating disorder cases. They aimed to reduce waiting times to one week for urgent cases and four for standard cases.
However, only 73.5 per cent of urgent cases 86.9 per cent of standard cases were seen within these timeframes. While these figures are an improvement from when the targets were set in 2016, because the total number of cases has increased, more people are not getting the care they need in time.
Hannah Pearson, who suffers from anorexia and bulimia, was featured in The Times after a critical incident. She was refused an urgent appointment because she did not meet criteria that required that she make herself sick at least five to six times a day or have a Body Mass Index (BMI) below 16.
Technology as a solution
Psychiatrist Beckerman believes that immediate treatment can be a matter of life or death.
“Statistics have shown that early intervention can reduce the death rate of anorexia to two or three per cent [from 20 per cent]. Most sufferers never get treatment, so being able to use technology to help them is great.”Debbie Beckerman
Could technology be the solution by helping the NHS deal with its overwhelming eating disorder case load?
Psychotherapist Sharon Young explains that technology and mental health have a complicated relationship: “Technology that helps to raise awareness around eating disorders and break the stigma around mental health issues is great because it’s cheap and easily accessible.”
However, Young notes that the digital era has also been partly responsible for the increase in eating disorder cases.
“Instagram has promoted unrealistic female body images and Snapchat has put pressure on girls as young as 12 to look good all the time,” Young says.
“Technology has the ability to transform treatment for eating disorders, but also exacerbate them.”
Though lockdown restrictions are beginning to ease in the UK, people with eating disorders face lifelong struggles.
Increasing education in schools and promoting self-help applications is a vital step in preventing eating disorders. Proper funding of mental health services and NHS eating disorder units to help those suffering is necessary.