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Your Healthy Family: Rise in eating disorders in kids lingers after pandemic

Posted at 7:31 AM, Jan 02, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-02 10:30:57-05

The rise in eating disorders we saw in kids early in the pandemic isn’t going down like doctors hoped it would.

“I didn't know how to get out of the hole I had dug," Katie Kittredge, who is recovering from an eating disorder, said.

She's spent spent the last several years on a journey to get well. She’s now in college, but developed an eating disorder when she started high school.

“It wasn't this intentional, 'Oh, I'm going out right now to try and starve myself' or anything like that. It was truly 'I feel out of control. And the only place I feel like I can control right now is food.'” Kittredge said.

Her parents helped her get treatment, and after two in-patient stays, she was in recovery. Then the pandemic hit.

“That was a really hard time because I think everything that I had looked up to for four years kind of seemed like it crashed upon itself," she said. "I really struggled with control and perfectionism. And that really is a catalyst for my eating disorder, and I had to make very conscious decisions about, 'OK, what am I going to do?'”

And she wasn’t alone. Katie was one of many young people across the country who struggled with an eating disorder during the pandemic; a trend doctors hoped would decline as students went back to school and in their routines. But unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

Dr. Elizabeth Wassenaar said more young people are struggling now because many put off treatment during the pandemic, and their symptoms are more severe than ever.

“They're very ill from both their eating disorder and their other mental health concerns: depression, anxiety, OCD, and all of the consequences of it is that if we don't address the mental health concerns of our youth, it's going to impact them for their entire lives," she said.

A recent study by the Journal of the American Medical Association documented a 34 percent increase in eating disorder diagnoses in young people during the pandemic. That's why the Eating Recovery Center in Denver, where Kittredge got help, is expanding its support for young people with virtual programs available worldwide.

“Now we can break that barrier down so we can actually meet people where they are in their hometown, in their families," Dr. Wassenaar said.

She's hoping it's a path to stopping what she sees as a dangerous trend.

“We know that when people become ill in their adolescence with severe mental illness and they don't get adequate treatment, that they have functional impairments, developmental impairments, they're not able to be a part of society,” she said.

Kittredge wants anyone struggling to know — no matter where you are, help is close by. And your life can be changed, too.

“What used to be a huge part of my life, which was my eating disorder, has now become really minuscule,” she said.

“It's not something that I'm constantly thinking about, which is so beautiful.”

Dr. Wassenaar said she expects more young people will need help in this coming year, and encourages parents to check on their kids if they suddenly change eating habits, start working out a lot, or are pulling back from hobbies or relationships.

For more information about the Eating Recovery Center and its programs, click here.