Getting Answers: youth eating disorders spike during pandemic

COVID-19 created the “perfect storm” for eating disorders among young people.
Published: May. 4, 2022 at 6:15 PM EDT|Updated: May. 4, 2022 at 7:28 PM EDT
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AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - COVID-19 created the “perfect storm” for eating disorders among young people.

Layla Plante has been battling an eating disorder for years. She and her stepmom, Karen, recently arrived at Walden Behavioral Care’s Amherst Clinic, where the 13-year-old finally addressed the disorder.

“I was always afraid of the texture. I really am still anxious about crumbs. I never liked pizza,” Layla said.

Layla had always avoided certain foods and lived on applesauce and oatmeal, but last year, it came to a breaking point.

“It really hit us in the beginning of COVID. She had a lot of stress and anxiety with the changes in school and remote school and she lost a lot of weight,” Karen explained.

Layla’s weight got down to a critical level and Karen feared for her daughter’s life.

“She put on leggings one day and they were falling off of her and leggings are usually a bit more snug so to see that… Her eyes were sunken it, her coloring was very pale, she just didn’t have a lot of energy. It was very scary to see,” Karen added.

Karen made the call for help and Kayla was put into a specialized program for kids with ARFID - avoidant restrictive food intake disorder.

“It’s less about the way that they look and more about either a fear that they might get sick after eating or the taste of a food or the look of a food,” said Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker Amanda Smith, program director at Walden Behavioral Care.

Smith said Layla entered treatment at a time when monthly inquiries into Walden’s 10 clinics doubled.

“The world went through something really major and how do we cope? For some, it’s not eating, lack of appetite. Others, its might be eating more, so we really saw how folks were trying to cope through this pandemic brought up some of those maladaptive coping mechanisms that they have just blossomed,” Smith explained.

The CDC found emergency room visits for eating disorders doubled among girls ages 12 to 17 during the pandemic. In Massachusetts, nine percent of residents will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime and 10,200 people nationwide die every year as a direct result of an eating disorder. That’s one death every 52 minutes.

Smith said parents should watch for subtle changes in behavior.

“Suddenly, now your adolescent who loved to eat dinner doesn’t want to eat with the family anymore. Maybe they’re eating by themselves in their room…They don’t want to take their sweatshirt off in front of others or as warmer weather comes. They’re staying more inside, bundled up,” Smith added.

Though it may come from a place of concern, saying “just eat” is never the answer.

“I think it can be really hard to continually hear ‘just eat’ or it’s ‘just a burger’ or ‘it’s just a snack.’ It’s so much more than that,” Smith noted.

Layla’s condition goes beyond just being “picky.” Therapy is helping her get to the root of the problem and identify coping skills.

“That’s where I started to really to change and develop into a new person,” Layla said.

She went from avoiding birthday parties and holiday dinners to trying and even cooking new foods.

“Now, you were telling me your list of likes is so much longer,” Smith said.

Layla added, “I love rice pilaf so much.”

Family support is key. As part of treatment, Karen got support from other parents going through the same thing.

“It’s hard to see someone you love go through an experience like this. It’s painful and that’s why we wanted to share our story, so people can understand that there’s hope and it does get better,” Karen said.

Her wish is that Layla will lead a healthy, independent life and that the rise in eating disorders over the pandemic also leads to increased awareness and people getting the help they need.

Editor’s Note: this story has been updated to reflect the numbers of deaths attributed to eating disorders each year.