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Eating Disorders Are on the Rise During the Pandemic—Here’s How To Get Help if You’re Struggling

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Photo: Getty Images/ agrobacter
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has put an immense strain on all aspects of people’s health and well-being—and sadly, mental health and body image issues are no exception to this rule. Since March 2020, the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) helpline reports it has experienced a 40% increase in call volume related to eating disorders and mental health issues compared to the year before.

Erin Parks, PhD, clinical psychologist and co-founder of eating disorder treatment startup Equip, tells Well+Good that there are a variety of reasons why more people may be struggling with disordered eating during the pandemic. One culprit is food insecurity, meaning having limited or uncertain access to nutritious food in a safe and timely manner, which has skyrocketed during the pandemic thanks to record unemployment rates impacting people’s ability to afford food. “When people are food insecure or living in food deserts, we see higher rates of eating disorders. In order to live and survive in a food desert, you have to engage in what are characteristically eating disorder behaviors,” says Dr. Parks, such as binge-eating or severely restricting food intake. “And when you do have food to eat, you’re going to eat more food in a setting than you normally would have.”

Increased stress caused by pandemic-related changes may also be at play. Dr. Parks says that eating disorders often function as a method for coping with stress and are similar to other kinds of maladaptive behaviors—behaviors that impact daily life and function—such as substance use and self-harm. “This is such a time of uncertainty for all of us, and for many people times of uncertainty trigger high stress and anxiety,” New York-based Talkspace therapist Jill E Daino, LCSW, previously told Well+Good. “That lends itself to [people] thinking about areas they do have control over…and for many people, that is food, their bodies, and their exercise routines.”

Unfortunately, there are significant barriers that stand in the way between people and recovery. “Eating disorders have some of the most complex and pervasive barriers to treatment,” says Chelsea Kronengold, communications manager at the National Eating Disorders Association. Kronengold says that there is a misconception and stigma that having an eating disorder is a choice or phase. “Many people struggling have internalized guilt that they’re not ‘sick enough’ or that they can overcome their eating disorder through willpower,” Kronengold explains. Kronengold says that these internalizations are simply not true and can prevent people from seeking help. Furthermore, treatment often requires the help of several experts—and occasionally a stay at a hospital or clinic—which comes with a significant price tag that many people can’t afford.

However, if you are struggling with disordered eating during the pandemic, Dr. Parks and Kronegold want you and your loved ones to know that you are not alone in this journey, and that there are a plethora of resources available to start your healing journey. It’s important to note that treatment is not one-size-fits-all, so we curated this list for you to check out and explore the options that work best for you.

Eating disorder resources to help you on the road to recovery

1. National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA)

If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, NEDA offers a toll-free and confidential helpline. You can call or text 1-800-931-2237 or click to chat to trained helpline staff and volunteers here. If you’re calling, the helpline is available Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and on Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. eastern time. For text, hours are Monday through Friday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. For crisis situations, text NEDA to 741741. (Please note that standard text messaging rates apply.)

2. Project Heal

This non-profit organization is dedicated to making eating disorder treatment more affordable and accessible. Project Heal provides free resource guides to help individuals navigate the complexities of their insurance benefits. Additionally, they offer beneficiaries free treatment and access to the largest network of facilities and providers at every level of care. To access treatment, you can submit an application here. Requests are reviewed on a monthly basis through a two-step application process. Lastly, if you have financial need and are struggling to afford the deductible, out-of-pocket maximums, or copays of treatment, you can apply to receive a one-time cash assistance here.

3. Nalgona Positivity Pride (NPP)

Gloria Lucas, NPP’s founder, creates visibility and resources for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) experiencing eating disorders through intersectional online education and resources. NPP has two upcoming educational webinars. If you want to learn about harm reduction methods for different eating disorders, you can register here. The webinar will take place online on March 18. If you want to take your eating disorder education to the next level, you can sign up for the group’s online panel on religious trauma, white supremacy, and eating disorders that takes place on March 31. For both events, you can purchase tickets on a sliding scale from $10 to $50.

4. National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD)

ANAD is a non-profit working to support people are who experiencing eating disorders in the U.S. The organization offers a free helpline, available Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Central. Call 888-375-7767 to access emotional support, encouragement, and treatment referrals. You can also join one of ANAD’s free peer-led support groups to get connected with resources and others who are also living with eating disorders here. If one-on-one support is more your jam, you can apply to request a peer support mentor who can support you in your journey. To learn more, fill out an interest form.

5. The Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness 

If you are looking for eating disorder treatment, the Alliance for Eating Disorders Awareness has got you covered. You can access treatment options no matter where you are in your recovery journey. Narrow your search for treatment based on specific criteria including zip code, populations treated, accepted insurance plans, and levels of care. You can find treatment here. If you would like to discuss treatment options or receive referral assistance, you can call 866-662-1235 or email info@allianceforeatingdisorders.com.

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