Lockdowns and interruptions exacerbate eating disorders

Lockdowns and interruptions exacerbate eating disorders

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause uncertainty for many people’s lives, with disruptions to school, work and continued anxiety over further lockdowns.

Nearly two years in, researchers are discovering more of the unforeseen consequences of previous approaches.

A recently published study in Australia found that the first wave of COVID-19 and the response caused a significant surge in eating disorders, revealing that 40 percent of people with symptoms had not sought treatment.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported:

“A national survey of 1723 people, taken from July to October 2020, found more than two-thirds of respondents reported a rise in body image concerns, food restriction and binge-eating.

“It found social isolation and changes to daily routines exacerbated illness.

 “The researchers, who tracked people with previously reported eating-disorder symptoms, found 88 per cent saw an increase in body image concerns, 74 per cent said they were more frequently restricting food intake and 66 per cent were binge-eating more often.”

The study highlighted “the prevalence of unidentified and unsupported people in the community experiencing increased eating disorder symptoms during this pandemic and the need for clinical awareness in general medical and mental health practice.” 

“Several pandemic experiences were identified as being particularly associated with more acute eating disorder illness such as changes in daily routine, social media reactions, restricted access to support people, and changes to treatment.” 

The Herald also quoted Kevin Barrow, Chief Executive of the Butterfly Foundation, a national charity for Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues, who said that COVID-19 was the “perfect storm” for eating disorders.

“In the past five years we’ve seen a 275 per cent increase in contact to our helpline. The virus has accelerated that curve and mental health concerns are often taking a back seat to the virus.

“There are many things we can’t control about COVID-19, so people can compensate with binge-eating or excessive exercise, which are exacerbated because those things can be controlled.”

The Butterfly Foundation reports that around two-thirds of those struggling with eating disorders are women and girls, though a significant number of men are also impacted by disorders and negative body image.

As we have said before, the approach taken by some governments of singularly focusing on protecting citizens from COVID-19 over and above so many other issues has resulted in adverse unintended consequences for many in our communities, and has often been at the expense of women and girls.

When addressing future health concerns and prioritising responses, extra care and thought needs to be given to the potential far-reaching negative impacts of lockdowns and other restrictions on the many other facets of life and health that affect citizens.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen women and girls often forgotten in the broad brush approach to combating the virus, whether that be in relation to eating disorders, impacts on pregnancy through disrupted maternal services or the increase of domestic violence resulting from lockdowns and restrictions.

Women’s Forum Australia is an independent think tank that undertakes research, education and public policy advocacy on issues affecting women and girls, with a particular focus on addressing behaviours and practices that are harmful and abusive to them. We are a non-partisan, non-religious, tax-deductible charity. We do not receive any government funding and rely solely on donations to make an impact. Support our work today.

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