According to a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, during the pandemic, emergency room visits among young teenage girls for eating disorders have doubled!
This concerning situation seems to be directly linked to the overall pandemic situation and how the prolonged state of crisis has been affecting people’s mental health, significantly elevating our stress levels.
That being said, it appears that the most affected demographic has been girls in the 12 to 17 age group.
The director of the eating disorder program at the Boston Children’s Hospital, Tracy Richmond, who was not involved in the CDC study, shared that “We’re seeing a high volume of patients in dire need of eating disorder care as well as with worsening severity. It feels clear for those of us who take care of teens that there’s an absolute second pandemic of mental health problems in adolescents.”
In fact, in 2020, children showed up to emergency departments less than in 2019, their visits declining by no less than 21 per cent as per a CDC report.
However, 2021 saw a less significant decrease of 8 per cent when compared to 2019.
Still, it turns out that the reason for those emergency visits changed a lot during the first few months of the pandemic, a big portion of them being for mental health.
More precisely, when compared to the year before, the mental health visits among kids between the age of 5 and 11 have risen by 24 per cent while the 12 to 17 years old age group has registered an increase of 31 per cent!
As mentioned before, there were significant differences based on gender as well, teenage girls being the most affected.
With that being said, visits to the emergency room among teen girls with ages between 12 and 17 have registered new highs in 2020 as well as in 2021.
The same demographic also struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression more than usual amid the pandemic.
A second CDC study also found that overall visits to the emergency room actually declined by 51 per cent in 2020, 22 per cent in 2021 and 23 per cent in January of 2022 when comparing the numbers to 2019.
Among kids, COVID-19 remains the number one reason for emergency visits, especially when it comes to really young children that are still not approved for vaccination.
This has particularly been the case after the omicron strain took over and caused ER visits for that age group to increase.
The visits related to behavioral health conditions for kids between the ages of 5 and 17 have also increased and this includes drug poisonings, self-harm, socioeconomic and psychosocial concerns.
Among teenagers only, other reasons were substance use and other mental health conditions.
The lead author of these two studies and a health scientist at the CDC, Lakshmi Radhakrishnan, stated that “The results point to the importance of increased awareness for health problems that can arise due to delayed medical care and a lot of heightened emotional distress during the pandemic, especially among adolescents.”
She went on to mention that the reasons why there has been such a significant increase in distress among teen girls are various and quite complex, stressing that an exact cause can be really hard to pinpoint.
Richmond mentioned that visits at her center have almost tripled and that the need for outpatient care has increased as well.
“As patients are coming in with higher and higher needs, they are coming in with more severe presentation, and they are often coming in with comorbid mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, suicidality.”
While it can be really hard to pinpoint a few clear factors, some potential reasons can include changes in routine and schedule such as spending more time in isolation at home and creating new habits focused around eating and exercise.
The stress of living through the pandemic is also another main cause as well as losing parents and caregivers to the virus or watching them worry about their jobs or dealing with their own mental health problems.
There’s no doubt that social distancing can be especially challenging for teenagers as during those years, it is important for them to learn how to form close relationships with their peers and to discover themselves, forming their own unique identities.
Richmond explains that “They are meant to be individuating from parents and family, and be striking out on their own and developing their individuality. Instead, in the early months of the pandemic, they were driven back into the home and even closer to their families.”
Their regular extracurricular activities have also been disrupted – stopping them from practicing their favorite sports, being in theater groups and more!
Having to self-isolate might have also increased their tendency to spend a lot of time online, especially on social media where they can be flooded by algorithms-controlled content capable of triggering their eating disorders and other similar issues.
Richmond said that “As our teenagers have been spending more time on social media, we are also uncovering that the content that they are being served is just getting more and more extreme.”
At the same time, the increase in tic disorders was especially unexpected since boys of the same age did not experience a rise in such issues.
Not only that but they are usually diagnosed in earlier ages and more common among boys than girls!
It is believed that the increase in tics among teenage girls can also be linked to social media, TikTok in particular, as cataloging tics has been a trend on the platform.
It has to be mentioned, however, that social media is not all bad!
In reality, it can also provide a lot of support and needed socialization for many.
Not to mention that it can act as a creative outlet for many children and youngsters as well.
Child and adolescent psychiatrist and suicidologist from BC Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, Tyler Black, highlights that a nuanced discussion on the role of social media is really important.
He says that “Kids were online and connecting virtually before we were Zooming – they were doing virtual conferences before we even knew what Zoom was – and they were prepared for online interaction.”
For those who attended school remotely, returning to school in person may have contributed to their stress increasing too, according to Black.
An American Psychological Association study from back in 2014, showed that school is actually a significant cause of stress for young ones dealing with anxiety.
In the United States, data shows that kids are twice as likely to commit suicide on a school day than on a non-school day.
Black states that “People naively say things like ‘if we send our kids back to school, we will restore their mental health.’ And I just keep wanting to remind everyone that prior to the pandemic, we had many concerns about school and kids’ mental health.”
This includes racism, bullying and a concerning lack of mental health support services and its total lack from the curriculum.
As for eating disorders, Richmond stressed that they can affect anyone, “all genders, all ages, all socioeconomic groups, all ethnic and racial groups – and I do think we have seen more of that during this pandemic than ever before.”
She also stated that every COVID-19 wave has brought about a lot of destabilization.
“There is just continued uncertainty, and such a feeling of loss – you sort of feel like you are getting your footing under you, and then a new variant comes and shakes everything up again. I do think there is some sense of kids wanting to control things … and for many of them, it spirals out of control in a way that they did not expect.”