The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant spike in the volume of adolescents and young adults seeking care for eating disorders, a new study says. Photo by bohed/Pixabay

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic caused a significant spike in the volume of adolescents and young adults seeking care for eating disorders, a new study says. Photo by bohed/Pixabay

Nov. 7 (UPI) — In another example of the COVID-19 pandemic’s detrimental effects on youth mental health, its onset caused a significant spike in the volume of adolescents and young adults seeking care for eating disorders, a new study says.

Researchers said the original investigation, which was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics, highlights the need to improve eating-disorder prevention strategies.

The findings also underscore the need to shore up the care system for eating disorders, since new demand will likely outstrip available medical resources, the investigators said.

Dr. Sydney M. Hartman-Munick, of Boston Children’s Hospital, is the study’s corresponding author.

The research paper notes that while eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder and binge eating disorder “affect individuals of every age, race, socioeconomic status, gender identity and sexual orientation,” they are of particular concern in adolescence and young adulthood, “which are critical stages of development.”

And eating disorders commonly occur simultaneously with other mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and substance use, “which can influence the trajectory of illness,” the paper says.

According to the researchers, eating disorders present a significant public health burden, with up to 10% of the total U.S. population struggling with one at some point in life.

The pandemic may have contributed to people’s struggles with eating disorders because of such issues as “uncertainty about the future, disruptions in daily routines, inconsistent access to food, increased time spent in triggering environments, influence from the media and changes in access to treatment,” according to the paper.

Previous research has documented increases in site-specific eating disorder care, but there has been a lack of multisite studies to indicate national trends, the scientists said.

So, the study examined changes in the monthly volume in inpatient and outpatient eating disorder-related care across 14 geographically diverse hospital-based adolescent medicine programs and one non-hospital-based program.

All of the programs, which are part of the U.S. National Eating Disorder Quality Improvement Collaborative, reported monthly care volumes of people seeking care for eating disorders between January 2018 and December 2021.

The researchers noted that demographic data, such as race and ethnicity, were not collected because the study used monthly summary data.

Their analysis found a significant COVID-19 pandemic-related increase in inpatient and outpatient volume of adolescent and young adult patients with eating disorders, particularly in the pandemic’s first year, among the 15 programs.

Across the programs, 81 total inpatient admissions for eating disorders were reported in January 2018 and 109 were reported in February 2020. Combined, new outpatient assessments totaled 254 in February 2020, up from 195 in January 2018.

Before the pandemic, inpatient eating-disorder admissions were increasing by 0.7% per month; after the pandemic’s onset, admissions were rising by 7.2% per month through April 2021.

This was followed by a monthly decrease of 3.6% for inpatient admissions for eating disorders across the programs over the remainder of 2021.

New outpatient assessments for eating disorders climbed by 8.1% monthly from April 2020 through April 2021, the researchers found.