Eating Disorders Rose During Pandemic

Mental health has generated increased attention since the beginning of the pandemic. With more people experiencing stress, isolation, and financial pressures, talking about their symptoms, and seeking treatment, mental health care has also gained in status as a high-priority employee benefit.

Unfortunately, eating disorders have also increased since the pandemic began, and effective treatment is often not as readily available as it may be for other mental health issues.

How big of a problem are eating disorders?

According to the National Institutes of Health, 3.3 million otherwise healthy individuals lose their lives worldwide each year due to eating disorders. In addition, those lucky enough to survive an eating disorder may experience disability, reduced quality of life, higher healthcare costs, lower earnings, and problems with childbearing as a result.

In “normal” times, 20 million women and 10 million men in America will experience some type of eating disorder each year. During the pandemic, emergency room visits for teenage girls suffering from eating disorder emergencies more than doubled nationwide. The National Eating Disorders Association reported 70-80% increases in calls to its helpline in 2020 alone.

What are eating disorders?

The three most common eating disorders include:

  • Anorexia – Failure to eat; sufferers fear gaining weight and obsess about it.
  • Bulimia – Prone to eating large amounts of food, perhaps to enjoy the taste and experience, then purge to lessen the calories actually metabolized.
  • Binge-eating – Consume large quantities of food, often all but uncontrollably, and do not purge.

How can I tell if someone has an eating disorder?

While eating disorders are often easy to hide, some warning signs may help to identify those who suffer from them:

  • Preoccupation with weight, food types, caloric content
  • Discomfort eating around others
  • Strange food rituals
  • Skipping meals
  • Mood swings
  • Noticeable weight fluctuations, up or down
  • Dry hair, skin, and nails
  • Yellow skin

What is the treatment for an eating disorder?

Treatment ranges from therapy and medication to inpatient or partial hospitalization, depending on the severity of the problem and imminent threat to life. In some parts of the country, finding treatment options is very difficult, especially in rural areas.

Why is the treatment cost so high?

Treatment for eating disorders can be very costly due to the specialized care required (for example, patients may need intensive support at mealtimes) and the fact that the treatment process can take months. Yet few health insurance policies provide coverage that lasts long enough to complete treatment for anything beyond a milder case. Unfortunately, telehealth has had limited success in treating patients with eating disorders.

How can employers help?

First and foremost, employers can ensure that the company insurance coverage provides the best possible coverage within their budget for physical and mental health care, including eating disorders. Secondly, employers can sponsor a Flexible Spending Account or Health Savings Account to help employees set aside pre-tax money to cover out-of-pocket costs for treatment.

Do you or someone you know suffer from an eating disorder? The National Eating Disorder Association hotline is ready to help at (800) 931-2237.

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