The COVID-19 pandemic is having a profound, negative impact on nine out of 10 people with eating disorders, according to a new study from the U.K.

While it is well known that COVID-19 is having a significant effect on the global population, research carried out by researchers from Northumbria University shows that the pandemic raises additional, unique challenges for individuals with eating disorders.

The study comes after calls from the scientific community to investigate the mental health consequences of the pandemic for vulnerable groups, such as the elderly and those with serious mental health conditions, including people with eating disorders, according to researchers.

During the early stages of the UK pandemic lockdown, Dr. Dawn Branley-Bell and Dr. Catherine Talbot surveyed individuals across the country who are currently experiencing, or in recovery from, an eating disorder.

The results suggest that disruptions to daily life as a result of lockdown and social distancing may have a detrimental impact on an individual’s well-being, with almost nine out of 10 (87 percent) of participants reporting that their symptoms had worsened as a result of the pandemic.

More than 30 percent reported their symptoms were much worse, according to the researchers.

Detrimental impacts on psychological well-being include decreased feelings of control, increased feelings of social isolation, increased rumination about disordered eating, and low feelings of social support, the survey discovered.

Through an analysis of participants’ responses, researchers found that the negative effects may be due to changes in a number of factors, including regular routines, living situations, time spent with friends and family, access to treatment, engagement in physical activity, relationship with food, and the use of technology.

One of the major challenges faced by those surveyed was reduced access to health care, the researchers said.

Some people reported being prematurely discharged from inpatient units, having treatment suspended, continuing to stay on a waiting list for treatment, and receiving limited post-diagnostic support, the survey discovered.

Participants said this made them feel like a “burden,”an “inconvenience,” and “forgotten” by the government and the National Health Service (NHS), the researchers said.

The research team warns that the consequences of not being able to access professional eating disorder treatment during the pandemic could be severe, causing some peoples’ conditions to become much worse and — in some cases — could prove fatal.

Media coverage and social media posts were also cited as a source of anxiety by those surveyed due to the general population’s preoccupation with food, weight gain, and exercise, according to the researchers.

Although some positive aspects of technology use were identified, those surveyed repeatedly highlighted the emphasis upon eating and exercise that has become a dominant theme across social media during the pandemic and the associated lockdown.

The researchers stressed that while positive messages about diet and exercise can be beneficial for the majority of the population, it is important for health care and government to acknowledge that these can also be triggering or upsetting for vulnerable populations.

“Our findings highlight that we must not underestimate the longevity of the impact of the pandemic,” Branley-Bell said. “Individuals with experience of eating disorders will likely experience a long-term effect on their symptoms and recovery. It is important that this is recognized by health care services, and beyond, in order to offer the necessary resources to support this vulnerable population now and on an ongoing basis.”

Beat, a UK charity for people with eating disorders, reports it has seen an 81 percent increase in contact across all Helpline channels. This includes a 125 percent rise in social media contact and a 115 percent surge in online group attendance, Beat officials report.

The study was published in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Source: Northumbria University

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