A new study confirms eating disorders, especially among New Jersey teens, have worsened significantly during the pandemic.

Hospital Association president and CEO Cathy Bennett said the COVID health crisis has had a significant impact “on the mental health, the behavioral health of our youth in New Jersey.”

The report, from the Hospital Association’s Center for Health Analytics, Research and Transformation, says teen eating disorder hospitalizations increased from 222 in 2019 to 599 last year.

Bennett said in one sense it’s not surprising that eating disorders, which are considered psychiatric disorders, increased dramatically when the pandemic started.

Isolation is hard

“You had stay-at-home orders, you had lockdowns, closures of schools and you had the elimination of even the recreational programs during this period,” she said.

She noted the isolation that resulted from the health emergency “deprived a lot of our youth and adolescents and young adults of the social support and the adaptive coping strategies that come from those social supports.”

She pointed out that at a time when personal interactions were extremely limited there was a big decrease in organized sports and activities, and that caused significant modifications in eating habits.

“That all led to anxiety and depression, we saw that in our numbers, and as we know those are also precursors that led to an increased risk of developing or worsening eating disorders,” said Bennett.

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Many kinds of eating disorders

The most common eating disorders are binge eating; anorexia nervosa, where someone fears gaining weight and will literally starve themselves; and bulimia, where an individual will eat large amounts of food and then will force themselves to vomit it all up because of concerns about body shape and weight.

She said compounding the problem is a shortage of specialists to treat eating disorders in young people.

“I’d say in New Jersey we have a robust mental health system of care but that system got strained during the pandemic.”

She said we need to make sure our health care professionals have additional resources “including telehealth to deliver care, that level of coordination and that level of accessibility is so desperately needed.”

Bennett said it’s vital we meet people where they’re at “and on the terms that they need in order to start addressing their eating disorders and their depressive behaviors, the things that lead to that self-harm.”

According to the report, 9% of New Jersey residents will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at david.matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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