A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) on Tuesday revealed that emergency department visits and hospitalizations for eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa were higher than expected among adolescents aged 10 to 17 years.
Researchers in Ontario looked at province-wide data from March 2020 to August 2022 and compared it with pre-pandemic numbers from January 2017 to February 2020.
Since the pandemic started, they found that the overall rate of ER visits among adolescents jumped by 121 per cent above expected levels, whereas the rate of hospital admissions was up 54 per cent above what was expected in that age bracket.
“The pandemic shed light on eating disorders, and it served as a catalyst to bring these issues forward,” said Dr. Alene Toulany, an adolescent medicine specialist at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) and one of the study co-authors.
“What we found was … there was a persistent surge in emergency department visits and hospitalizations for young people, especially,” she told Global News in an interview.
Emergency visits among young adults aged 18 to 26 years and older Canadians aged 41 years and above also went up during the pandemic period, but relatively smaller increases were observed, the study said.
Meanwhile, hospital admissions related to eating disorders for all Canadians aged 18 and older decreased below the expected rate.
In all age groups, women required higher rates of hospital care for eating disorders than was expected, according to the CMAJ study.
“A combination of risk factors — including isolation, increased time on social media, extended time spent with family, decreased access to care and fear of infection — may contribute to an increased risk of development or exacerbation of an eating disorder,” the authors said in the study.
“An overall rise in mental health disorders may be contributing to important comorbidities among those presenting with eating disorders,” they added.
Concern around health and fitness may have also caused disordered eating or worsened prior symptoms with fewer opportunities to exercise as gyms were closed, promotion of at-home workouts on social media, and fear of gaining weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, the researchers noted.
Toulany said “adolescents are uniquely vulnerable” to many of the stressors that the pandemic evoked, which could explain why they were more likely to seek care, but she added that additional research is needed to understand what is driving the increase in eating disorders.
“It’s important to note that the impact on adolescents seems disproportionate and that may be reflective of their developmental stage,” she said.
The authors urged more research on this topic and called on healthcare authorities to increase funding and resources for eating disorder programs for adolescents and adults in the country.
“We’re really hoping that our work heightens awareness on eating disorders and also the importance of bolstering supports not just for adolescent populations, but adults as well,” Toulany said.
There is growing research and concern about the mental health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada, particularly among the younger population.
Another study published in the CMAJ last month showed that pediatric hospital visits for self-harm saw a “large” increase during the first years of COVID-19 in Canada.
Meanwhile, the damaging impact of social media — particularly on young people — has been well documented.
One such report published last year found that Instagram’s algorithms are pushing pro-eating disorder content to millions of users, many of whom are minors as young as nine and 10 years old.
If you or a loved one is suffering from disordered eating, the National Eating Disorder Information Centre offers an online chat and toll-free helpline (1-866-633-4220) to help connect people with support.
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