How to Help Someone Who Is Struggling With an Eating Disorder Right Now

On the website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it states that “the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic may be stressful for people,” which sounds like the understatement of the year to me. They go on to delineate ways in which stress may manifest itself, including trouble sleeping, changes in eating habits, and worsening of mental health conditions.

Recent studies suggest that two ways the pandemic is indeed affecting young adults is in terms of disordered eating and depression — conditions that often coexist.

The statistics paint a grim picture:

— One-fourth of 18- to 24-year-olds reported considering suicide in June.

— The National Eating Disorder Association saw a 78% increase in helpline contacts at the start of the pandemic.

— A study conducted by the Center for Body Image Research and Policy at the University of Missouri found that at least 40% of approximately 800 young adults reported that they’d rather get COVID-19 than gain 25 pounds while quarantined.

— Research conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that pandemic anxiety resulted in overeating or undereating among 32% of participants.

— A large study in Australia found that individuals with a history of eating disorders were both restricting and binge eating more since the pandemic started.

It seems safe to say that the kids are not all right.

These data suggest that although public health efforts should certainly focus on young people’s health behaviors and risk avoidance — like wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t socialize indoors — they also should be thinking about their mental health, especially in terms of disordered eating.

What can we say to those who are struggling with their eating habits right now?

[READ: Tips for Eating Disorder Recovery.]

How to Help

Emma Borgstrom (21 years old) suffered from an eating disorder during her late teens and early twenties. She considers herself recovered now, but has had a lot of time to think these last few months about what would have helped her growing up.

“As a young girl, I wish people had complimented me more on my abilities and less on my appearance,” she told me. “Telling me that I was petite and pretty made me feel that I had to keep being those things — that girls and women are ONLY small and pretty. I wish people asked me what my opinion was more often and gave me the space to share it.”

Emma’s reflections remind us that eating habits are not just about eating. If you know someone who is currently struggling, it’s important that you offer them the space to voice their fears and validate their concerns during this unprecedented time. If you feel unsure of what to say or how to be supportive, recommend they seek out an experienced therapist — or help them to locate a therapist.

[READ: How to Manage Eating Disorders During the Coronavirus Pandemic.]

The Added Stress of the Pandemic

Psychologist Jaclynn Cosan, a team leader at the Renfrew Center of Pittsburgh, an eating disorder treatment center, reminds us that many people are struggling with changes in their daily routines and uncertainties about the future; these stressors may emerge as maladaptive eating behaviors.

The cultural attention that’s been focused on people’s quarantine weight gain only makes matters worse. She says, “the concept of ‘ quarantine 15‘ can be harmful to those already struggling with eating disorder urges and behaviors. Villainizing weight gain contributes to a culture of bodyshaming and fat-phobia, which exacerbate stress for those trying to navigate their relationship with their bodies.”

If someone you know is having a hard time maintaining adaptive eating habits right now, be careful not to talk about what you eat, your weight gain or anything pertaining to diet culture.

Isabel Zarrow (19 years old) told me that her recovery from an eating disorder became possible when her conversation with herself about her body shifted and she began to eat, work out and meditate because she wanted to and not because she felt like she had to. Isabel offered, “when you are at peace with yourself, the focus shifted out of appearance to how I feel inside. It’s not that I started to love my body, but I finally started to love and accept myself. That really makes the difference.”

It’s tempting to turn to what we eat and our activity patters as a means of feeling some control during a tumultuous time. For people with a history of disordered eating, this impulse may be especially strong. Offering encouragement and a willingness to support positive habits, such as keeping exercise fun and not obligatory, can go a long way.

Mental Health Benefits of Helping

Many of us are having a hard time feeling at peace these days with so many unknowns to navigate. However, helping someone else maintain their mental health may mean cultivating your own sense of Zen and helping them do the same.

Ellie Sanders (17 years old) recently wrote to her past self, the girl who had an eating disorder, “I want to take your hand and show you that things get better. But I’m afraid you’ll have to discover this in your own time. Right now, you’re far too busy thinking of every single thing you’d like to change about yourself. Wasting hours and days and weeks obsessing over calories and exercise and comparing yourself to everyone else. It’s exhausting, but for now this vicious cycle is your life. So you get up every single morning and live it, as best as you can. I admire you so much for that. I admire your ability to face the day, despite knowing it will be run by this manipulating illness you are so stuck with.”

The view inside Ellie’s mind offers a clue as to the despair felt by someone in the depths of an eating disorder. It also may seem eerily familiar as many of us get up day after day in the midst of a pandemic and try to do our best while feeling at the mercy of forces outside ourselves. The fragility of those suffering with mental illness right now can’t be forgotten or the effects will be felt long after the pandemic has passed.

For more information about how to help a loved one struggling with an eating disorder see the National Eating Disorders Association web page.

For more information about mental health services, visit the American Psychological Association’s web page.

More from U.S. News

12 Potential Signs of an Eating Disorder

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What Not to Say to Someone With Depression

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