A new study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal reveals a concerning trend: hospitalizations and emergency department visits for eating disorders significantly increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially among adolescents aged 10-17 years. The research, based on data from ICES, a non-profit research institute, compared rates of eating disorder-related hospitalizations and ED visits before and during the pandemic, shedding light on the impact of the health crisis on mental health, particularly in younger age groups.
Over the 30 months following the onset of the pandemic, the study found a 121% increase in observed emergency department visits for eating disorders among adolescents, soaring to 7.38 per 100,000, far exceeding the expected rate. Young adults, aged 18-26 years, also saw a 13% increase in ED visits, reaching 2.79 per 100,000, while individuals aged 27-40 years maintained rates close to expectations.
Adolescent hospital admissions related to eating disorders rose by 54%, reaching 8.82 per 100,000. The study's authors, including Dr. Alene Toulany, an adolescent medicine specialist at The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and adjunct scientist at ICES, attributed this surge to a complex interplay of factors, including social isolation, intensified exposure to social media, prolonged family interactions due to lockdowns, reduced access to mental health care, and fears related to infection.
"The closure of gyms and limited opportunities for physical activity, coupled with increased stress at home, likely contributed to the escalation of eating disorders," said Dr. Toulany.
The study underscores the urgent need for increased funding in eating disorder programs for both adolescents and adults, as well as further research initiatives. Dr. Toulany stressed the importance of a nuanced approach, recognizing the distinct challenges faced by various age groups concerning mental health resources.
"Our findings emphasize the critical need for targeted mental health resources across different age segments. It is imperative to expand our mental health support systems, focusing on both adolescent and adult eating disorder programs," added Dr. Toulany.
The study's authors also highlighted the necessity for additional research to discern whether the surge in acute presentations is due to new cases of eating disorders or exacerbation of existing conditions, thereby aiding the development of more effective prevention and intervention strategies.