Photo: “. . . Eating Disorder. . .” by Darren Tunnicliff from Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
While COVID-19 causes fever, shortness of breath and loss of smell among other symptoms, quarantine and social distancing measures have taken a significant toll on people’s mental health. As unforgiving as the actual virus, the isolation, stress and fear caused by the pandemic can lead to dangerous consequences for someone with preexisting conditions and disorders. People are at greater risks of developing an eating disorder or relapsing because of the pandemic, and college students are particularly vulnerable.
Recently, hotline calls to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) are up 70–80% in the past few months. According to the Renfrew Center, a treatment center for eating disorders with 19 locations across the country and Joint Commission accreditation, college students are particularly at risk since they are faced with unexpected and numerous stresses, including educational, financial and social challenges, in addition to health and safety concerns related to COVID-19. Kathleen Martinez, a licensed professional counselor and team leader at The Renfrew Center of Radnor, described some of the situations that might recapitulate disorders. “Isolation at home, changes in routine, more unstructured time, et cetera: there’s added stress about going grocery shopping, which is already something that is particularly stressful for an individual with an eating disorder, and even concern[ed] about food scarcity. So when somebody’s isolating at home, they may start to identify with old eating disorder thoughts, not because their body has changed, but because the emotion surrounding COVID-19 and social distancing feel so out of control that they’re looking for something familiar to grasp on to.”
NEDA already estimates that 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States will develop an eating disorder at some point in their lives. The most common disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating and avoidant/restrictive food intake. As for the causes of eating disorders, Martinez stated that there isn’t one core reason: “It can develop as a way to manage the stressors of life and manage difficult emotions. They can oftentimes develop as a kind of coping tool to help you get through a difficult time and then can develop into something more difficult.”
Martinez described warning signs to watch out for, including a shift in a friend or loved one’s eating patterns. “Is somebody not eating meals with family anymore? Are they hiding food? Do you notice that things are going missing? Are you seeing changes in their body shape? Are they exercising more frequently and voicing more body image concerns, too?”
Social media has been one escalator of eating disorders. Jokes about the “Quarantine 15” can fuel toxic thoughts of one’s body image and fuel stressors behind common disorders. “I think the implication that someone should be worried about gaining weight during a crisis like this is really harmful to everyone, especially those with an eating disorder. These jokes reflect that fatphobic idea that gaining weight is inherently a bad thing, which definitely isn’t true. And these “Quarantine 15” posts are mocking people with real struggles with eating and weight, and they stigmatize those who are in larger bodies and reinforce that stereotype that being in a larger body is a bad thing,” stated Martinez. Comments and posts about exercising and higher levels of productivity during quarantine enforce negative messages as well. Behaviors like increased exercise are linked to purging behaviors common with eating disorders.
Food insecurity and scarcity is correlated to disorders, especially during the pandemic. A common problem on university campuses, food insecurity is prevalent at West Chester as well. Fortunately, the Resource Pantry in Commonwealth Hall has remained open during digital learning, but the triggers connected to food scarcity remain. “People who have concerns about exposure to COVID-19 can feel intimidated and avoid leaving the home. For people who are already struggling to go to the grocery store, maybe they go and they try and stockpile food. With fears of food scarcity and fears of having to go back out in public again, that can lead people to restrict and make their food last longer. Or on the flip side, stress of having a stockpile of food at home can also trigger or contribute to urges to binge,” said Martinez.
To meet the need for eating disorder treatment in a socially-distant world, The Renfrew Center has developed specialized treatment targeted to college students, though their care ranges widely for all individuals seeking help. College students can choose from Residential, Virtual Day and Virtual Intensive Outpatient treatment, depending on a person’s level of care needed. Martinez spoke about the extent counselors go to help their patients, including a virtual walk-through of a grocery store with patients. Personalized meal plans and meetings with dieticians are also involved in treatment to make sure patients are meeting their nutritional needs. The center runs virtual meals with patients with a therapist present for support.
Students can deal with high stress levels in healthy ways, but support is key. “Find times in your schedule to do things that you really enjoy, even if it means not necessarily going outside, but finding maybe a virtual way to do it. Find time to communicate with friends and family members and people that you’re close to, even if that’s something that is difficult for you … Just find things that you enjoy and find a balance with it. I know that there can be a lot of pressure to be productive and always be doing something and learning and growing. But give yourself space and time and really just a little bit of grace through all of this.”
For questions, concerns or to seek help from The Renfrew Center, call 1-800-RENFREW
For immediate help, call NEDA’s hotline at 1-800-931-2237. For 24/7 crisis support, text ‘NEDA’ to 741741.
Maria Marabito is a fourth-year English major with a minor in Literature and Diverse Cultures. MM883631@wcupa.edu