Spike in serious eating disorders during pandemic

Hospital admissions for eating disorders went up by 50 percent during Covid-19 lockdowns in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Associate Professor David Menkes in front of a pallisade in Hamilton Gardens.
Hospital visits relating to eating disorders rose during Covid-19, while admissions for other psychiatric conditions stayed about the same, says Associate Professor David Menkes.

A new study shows that more Kiwis, especially those aged ten to 19 years, ended up in hospital for eating disorders during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The researchers from Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland and Te Whatu Ora looked at hospital records from 2017 to 2021 to compare how many patients were admitted before and during the pandemic.

The research, led by Dr Sara Hansen, found that, while hospital admissions for other mental health issues stayed about the same or declined slightly, admissions for eating disorders increased by nearly 50 percent.

Most of the increase was seen in girls aged ten to 19 with a diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, where individuals markedly restrict what they eat, even when very thin.

"It is really important that trends in eating disorder admissions continue to be monitored," says senior author Associate Professor David Menkes from the University’s School of Psychological Medicine.

“This is a seriously ill population with a high risk of starving themselves to death.”

The study also showed that Māori had proportionately more hospital admissions for eating disorders than others, reinforcing the need for culturally appropriate clinical services in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The study suggests that the pandemic presented significant challenges for those prone to disordered eating due to disrupted daily routines, difficulties in accessing medical care, and increased time spent on social media, which can negatively impact self-esteem.

“Our main hypothesis is that disturbed social relationships during the pandemic drove the increase in severe eating disorders,” Dr Menkes says.

“You may be isolated from people you want to be with or stuck with people you don’t – both of these can be stressful,” he says.

“Young people vulnerable to eating disorders may respond to this stress by attempting to control something else, namely their eating, which can be very risky if they starve themselves.”

The findings were in line with research overseas; however, because New Zealand had very low levels of Covid-19 infection early in the pandemic, it suggests social disruption and not the virus was not to blame.

“We believe that the identification and management of eating disorders should be part of planning for future pandemics,” Dr Menkes says.

• For more information about this study, "Eating Disorder and Other Psychiatric Hospitalisations in New Zealand During the COVID-19 Pandemic," visit International Journal of Eating Disorders.

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Media adviser Jodi Yeats
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E: jodi.yeats@auckland.ac.nz