The pandemic has created a "perfect storm" for people affected by eating disorders with relapses, newly diagnosed cases and intensified problems for those already living with the condition.
Research from Bodywhys, the Eating Disorders Association of Ireland, and the School of Sociology at University College Dublin, indicates that the pandemic has impacted across three key areas — the experience of those with an eating disorder, the experience of service provision, and the impact on the family situation.
"There was a sense that a ‘perfect storm’ had arisen, contributing to a very clear and immediate impact on people affected by eating disorders, but one which has also continued throughout the pandemic," it said.
"A variety of situations have emerged: people relapsing, people being newly diagnosed during lockdown or the intensification of the lived experience for those with an existing issue."
The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine, refers to figures which show a 66% increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders amongst children and adolescents since the start of the pandemic, and data showing paediatric hospitals and acute hospitals have also reported increased acute presentations.
Bodywhys offers a free PiLaR family support programme and from September 2020 to March 2021, 629 participants submitted their responses to a survey.
"From September 2020, 34% of carers reported that Covid-19 was impacting their ability to provide support to the individual experiencing an eating disorder," it said. "This increased to 41% in November 2020 and 43% in January 2021.
"In February 2021, although there was a decrease in those who responded that they ‘agreed’ that Covid-19 was having an impact on their role as a carer, there was an increase in those who indicated that they ‘strongly agreed’ with this statement, resulting in a total of 51% of participants reporting that Covid-19 was impacting their ability to support the person with the eating disorder."
It also found 61% of the participants reported that their own mental health was being impacted by supporting someone.
Problems caused by the pandemic included early fears of food shortages, 'emotional eating', increased time online, limited access to healthcare, disruption to treatment outcomes, disparity in access to eating disorder services and premature discharge from services and reduced contact from clinical teams.
The study did note some positive aspects, such as greater connection with family, more time for self-care, and motivation to recover.
It also found there was a 111% increase in demand for Bodywhys' online support group between March and last December, compared with the same period in 2019, while support email contacts rose 45% in the same period and helpline calls increased 54%.
According to the study: "Risk factors have heightened, whilst protective factors have been less accessible. Sadly, as we have seen, when increased risk factors and reduced protective factors collide into each other, the emotional and personal dimensions to people’s lives have become very difficult and distressing."
* Bodywhys.ie / helpline: 01 2107906