DISCLAIMER: At Discovery Institute in New Jersey, our facility is not equipped to deal with eating disorders as a secondary diagnosis in patients.

COVID-19 has taken its toll on millions of individuals living with addiction, as well as, a range of mental health disorders. Various medical studies have proven this sentiment, especially for people suffering from eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder (BED).

Eating disorders are considered among the deadliest mental illnesses among individuals, and it’s the second only to opioid overdose. To paint an even clearer picture of the seriousness of eating disorders, about 26% of individuals with eating disorders attempt suicide. The total economic cost of eating disorders is $64.7 billion annually.

Statistics show an increase in worsening symptoms for those with addiction and other conditions such as eating disorders, depression, and anxiety. This is because heightened stress and frequent triggers during the pandemic may lead some with eating disorders to revert to old coping strategies.

At Discovery Institute in New Jersey, we provide access to care and resources to help you or a loved one effectively treat and manage addiction and mental health issues throughout these challenging times.

Addiction, Eating Disorders, and COVID-19: The Perfect Storm

As if eating disorders and addiction weren’t difficult enough to deal with, individuals suffering, have continued to face an entirely new challenge in the form of a pandemic requiring social distancing. There is no doubt, that COVID-19 has ultimately changed our entire way of life.

​For people with eating disorders and addiction, the pandemic has created new stressors and disrupted treatment plans, despite the demand for access to proper diagnoses and mental health care.

If you have an addictive disorder and another mental health condition, such as an eating disorder or depression, this is called a “dual diagnosis.” This means that you have both an addictive disorder and another mental health condition.

This leads to a cycle in which each condition worsens quickly and with serious consequences. Some people may feel like alcohol or drugs temporarily decrease their symptoms of mental illness. But in the long run, mental health problems can increase your risk of addiction, and vice versa, addiction can make other mental health conditions worse.

Other medical conditions may also increase the risk of addiction. For example, taking prescription painkillers after surgery may put you at risk of addiction. An injury or illness may lead to changes in your lifestyle that make you more likely to use drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. At Discovery Institute, we can help you develop better-coping strategies for dealing with changes in your health and lifestyle.

Eating Disorders On The Rise During the Pandemic

The connection between disordered eating, addiction, and COVID-19 demonstrates the severity of mental health issues in the United States and worldwide. After the pandemic was declared a national emergency, hospitalization admissions more than doubled during the first 12 months, especially among adolescents with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia nervosa.

According to Jennifer Lombardi, a certified eating disorder specialist and the manager of behavioral health for the Kaiser Permanente Sacramento Medical Center, “The COVID-19 pandemic has created what’s considered to be the perfect storm of high-risk factors for eating disorders.”

Studies surrounding this topic indicated that the main issue lies in eating disorders on the rise because they thrive on secrecy. “During the pandemic, when people are fearful, stressed, and disconnected from others; it’s challenging for them to use healthy coping mechanisms.” Lombardi’s statement proves just how prevalent disordered eating has always been before, but, especially during COVID.

Risk Factors of Addiction

Millions of people from all different backgrounds and beliefs can experience addiction. It can be hard to understand why some people are more prone to it than others. Regardless of your upbringing or moral code, many factors can raise your risk of becoming addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Your genetics, environment, medical history, and age all play a role. Certain types of drugs, and methods of using them, are also more addictive than others.

Addiction is not a matter of weak willpower or lack of morals. When you’re addicted, the chemistry that happens in your brain is completely different from what happens in people who aren’t addicted. One person may be able to occasionally smoke cigarettes for pleasure, while another needs them daily to function. Heredity is a major risk factor for addiction. The other risk factors of addiction include:

  • Genetics (40-60%)
  • Environmental factors
  • Social factors
  • Psychological factors
  • Personality traits
  • Co-occurring disorders (Having both an addiction and mental disorder)

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, up to half of your risk of addiction to alcohol, nicotine, or other drugs is based on your genetics. If you have a family member who has experienced addiction, you are more likely to experience addiction as well. If you have an “addictive personality” you may be at risk for a wide range of addictions. For example, if you have an alcoholic parent, you may decide not to drink but still become addicted to smoking or gambling.

Risk Factors of Eating Disorders

eating disorders on the rise
An eating disorder is a mental disorder often characterized by disturbances in thoughts, behaviors, eating, attitudes towards food, and body weight or shape. In the United States, 28.8 million Americans (9%) will have an eating disorder in their lifetime. Roughly 10,200 deaths per year are a direct result of an eating disorder, which adds up to 1 death every 52 minutes. The lifetime prevalence is an estimation at 8.4% for women and 2.2% for men. If left untreated, eating disorders can cause major health complications.

There are various risk factors for eating disorders. Eating disorders can affect individuals of all racial/ethnic backgrounds, body weights, ages, and genders. Frequently, eating disorders appear during the teen years or even young adulthood. Genetics, psychological factors, and social influences have all been linked to developing eating disorders and adolescents with low self-esteem or depressive symptoms are especially at high risk.

According to Dr. Kelly Allison, Director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, “Disordered eating has become more severe in terms of extreme restriction, as well as in those with loss of control eating.” What’s even more troubling than the statement above, is that the average age of patients to be diagnosed with an eating disorder has decreased over time.

It’s important to recognize the overall scope of mental illness, and in this case, how people have been affected during COVID-19. Changes in the daily lives of young people during the pandemic, such as school closures and the cancellation of organized activities such as sports, can disrupt diet and exercise routines and can be a catalyst for the development of addictive behaviors and unhealthy eating habits.

Looking at the data from surveying more than 3.2 million people, researchers have examined in-depth trends and evidence related to the connection between coronavirus and its connection to substance abuse and mental disorders. Results cited numerous explanations and risk factors for why the pandemic has prompted such an increase in disordered eating. Some of them include:

  • Obesity
  • Buying food in large quantities to avoid having to go to the grocery store due to the fear of catching COVID-19
  • Cancellation of hobbies/enjoyable activities
  • Lack of routine
  • Pre-existing mental illness
  • Social media
  • Lack of access to treatment

People surveyed have also reported that limitations in exercise and other physical activities cause them to worry about gaining weight, leading to poor diet or exercise. Also, increased use of social media during the pandemic may expose young people to more negative messages about body image and weight.

Increased Demand for Treatment but Limited Access to Care

One of the most notable and possible factors causing the rise of eating disorders during the pandemic is the increased demand for the treatment of non-COVID-19 conditions, including eating disorders and addiction, but having limited access to proper care to treat them. Having this reduced availability of personal care exacerbates symptoms of these conditions greatly.

This is especially true for adolescents and young adults, as there are fewer face-to-face visits as part of measures to reduce transmission risks. Evaluation and treatment of patients with supposed disordered eating usually require measurements of weight and vital signs and may include a complete physical examination or laboratory tests to receive an accurate diagnosis.

Therefore, methods and resources to give people access to the care they need have started to be provided to patients virtually from the comfort of their own homes via telehealth technology. In some instances, virtual care may replace in-person care for eating disorders, meaning that patients in some programs may have a greater responsibility for self-care.

However, it’s important to note, that telehealth services may not be offered by some rehab facilities and are covered by all insurance providers. Research shows that some people prefer in-person visits more, as they feel as though they receive a more thorough visit with their medical provider.

Treatment of Co-Occurring Disorders

For those with disordered eating behaviors, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic poses specific challenges for those in charge of concerns about eating or self-perception. The confinement inherent in social distancing pursuits can make it difficult to maintain a network of support.

There may also be indirect links to the pandemic. For example, a person not working in the office anymore and has to do so from home can become very isolating. What about the many students and teachers who had to leave school and do it virtually from home? Think about how a teenager with significant symptoms of an eating disorder and severe malnutrition may not have sought medical attention until he returned to live with his parents after college may have closed unexpectedly due to Coronavirus.

A stressful event such as the ones above can lead to the development of symptoms in a young person at risk for eating disorders. During the pandemic, disruption of life, lack of routine, such as grocery shopping and exercise, as well as feelings of lack of control, are possible factors that may contribute to the cause of strain and tension that leads to undesired food behaviors. This can result in more adverse effects for people who are dealing with dietary issues. When everything seems out of control for many, the only thing they think they can control is their food.

At Discovery Institute, we provide dual diagnosis treatment and other resources for people suffering from various conditions. Our team helps patients utilize healthier coping strategies, which can include creating a structured routine, engaging in hobbies, staying connected to a support system, and practicing self-compassion.

Increased Demand but Limited Access to Care

Another possible factor causing the rise of eating disorders during the pandemic is the increased demand for the treatment of non-COVID-19 conditions, including eating disorders but having limited access to the reduced availability of personal care.

This is especially true for adolescents and young adults, as there are fewer face-to-face visits as part of measures to reduce transmission risks. Evaluation and treatment of patients with supposed disordered eating usually require measurements of weight and vital signs and may include a complete physical examination or laboratory tests to receive an accurate diagnosis.

Therefore, methods and resources to give people access to the care they need have started to be provided to patients virtually from the comfort of their own homes via telehealth technology, which allows you to continue receiving therapy over the phone or by video. In some instances, virtual care may replace in-person care for eating disorders, meaning that patients in some addiction treatment programs may have a greater responsibility for self-care.

However, it’s important to note, that telehealth services may not be offered by some rehab facilities and are covered by all insurance providers. Research shows that some people prefer in-person visits more, as they feel as though they receive a more thorough visit with their medical provider. Check with your treatment facility to see if there are any additional online choices you can use.

Helpful Tips for People Struggling During COVID-19

While Discovery Insitute doesn’t treat eating disorders as a secondary diagnosis in patients, here are a few tips for you or your loved ones to help manage your mental and physical well-being at home throughout this challenging time.

Everyone is having a hard time overcoming something during this unprecedented time. Some struggles are personal and some are universal. Connecting and reminding ourselves that we’re not alone in our struggles can be a very useful buffer to combat feelings of loneliness and mental health stigma.

Maintain contact with your loved ones and medical providers

We’re all doing our best to follow social distance guidelines to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but it is just as important to find ways to stay connected with our community and loved ones. There are many ways to stay connected through social media, video calls, etc. In addition, it helps to remember that we are all together. If you’re working with therapists to recover from addiction or mental illness, please keep working with them.

Create a structured schedule/routine

Having a planned schedule can help you avoid harmful habits, especially in today’s climate where sticking to your usual routine may be tough. Due to the current pandemic concerns, you may need to change your normal schedule. It’s fine to accept that this may cause some concern. To stay on track, enlist the help of your medical providers, virtual support networks, family, and friends. Most importantly, this routine should include ample social connection and enjoyable activities/hobbies to help ward against feelings of isolation and loss of control.

Find strategies to move your body in a safe manner

Physical activity and exercise can reduce stress in the body, increase feelings of joy, and keep us grounded. Simple stretches, yoga/meditation, or a brief walk are examples of exercises that can provide pleasant results without triggering disordered behavior. Finding recovery-friendly activities, on the other hand, can be difficult and should be done with the help of your treatment team and family. Please consult with your treatment team to determine what activities are safe and appropriate for you at this time.

Utilize resources that connect you with support systems

If at all possible, it’s important during this unprecedented time to bolster existing support networks with family and friends. Invite them on video dates through Zoom, FaceTime, or Skype. Alternatively, set up a method for connecting with others so that they may offer you support. It’s beneficial to be candid with individuals you trust about the issues you’re facing and how you’re feeling.

Virtual communities can be a valuable resource as well. You can participate in free or low-cost online forums, virtual support groups, online peer networks, recovery mentors, and live meal support through the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). If you need more resources or are in a crisis, you can also contact the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline. For parents of children with addiction or mental conditions such as an eating disorder, there are good resources that offer peer/family support and a community to help them through difficult times.

Receive Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders at Discovery Institute

The overall relationship between COVID-19 and eating disorders is thoroughly explained, supported by evidence-based research surrounding the topic of addiction and mental health issues. Want to know more information about eating disorders on the rise? Mental disorders and addiction stem from something: whether that is genetics, environment, trauma, abuse, or other personal issues. Therefore, treatment at a rehab facility is necessary.

Here at Discovery Institute in New Jersey, we understand the importance of seeking treatment early for mental health disorders. We provide treatment programs and resources to help those suffering from co-occurring disorders. Complete recovery is possible with one of our facilities. Let’s get started today on the journey.

Reviewed for Medical & Clinical Accuracy by Dr. Joseph N. Ranieris D.O.

Dr. Joseph Ranieri D.O. earned his BS in Pharmacy at Temple University School of Pharmacy in 1981 and His Doctorate Degree in Osteopathic Medicine at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1991. He is Board Certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and a Diplomate of the American Board of Preventive Medicine Addiction Certification.