Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Virus triggering surge in eating disorders: Waikato study

By Qiuyi Tan

New research shows the Covid-19 pandemic is triggering a surge in demand for eating disorder services in the Waikato, findings that reflect what support groups call a growing nationwide problem.

The University of Auckland study found eating disorder hospital admissions for adults spiked during last year's nationwide lockdown, while the full year figure is nearly double that of pre-Covid 2019.

Researchers say the study backs media and anecdotal reports of a pandemic-related surge in eating disorders in New Zealand, and highlights the risk of treatment services being stretched thin managing the sometimes life-threatening illnesses.

The study looked at clinical records of 236 Waikato patients in 2019 and 2020 and found a higher number of both children and adults were admitted to hospital for the first time with an eating disorder, mostly anorexia.

In outpatient services young people were referred more frequently during the pandemic, and more physically unwell when referred.

Nicki Wilson of the Eating Disorder Association of New Zealand (EDANZ) says the study shows it is the uncertainty and distress of a prolonged pandemic - not just lockdown - that is behind the uptick in eating disorders.

The EDANZ helpline has seen calls and contacts to support staff double in the past 12 months, as eating disorder sufferers are having trouble getting treatment on "unacceptably long waitlists."

She said people are presenting with new, worsening or a relapse of eating disorders, a mental illness known to have the highest death rate.

Co-founder of mental health charity Voices of Hope Genevieve Mora. Photo / Supplied

Parents are able to pick up on behaviours in their children quicker because they're staying at home due to Covid-19 restrictions, says Genevieve Mora of mental illness advocacy group Voices of Hope.

Lockdown is difficult because many are not able to access the face-to-face support from health professionals, and even if available, online support is just not the same, Mora said.

The study also showed Māori were under-represented in both inpatient and outpatient care, suggesting there were barriers to treatment.

Māori made up less than 10 per cent of those receiving eating disorder services in the Waikato DHB even though they represented 24 per cent of the population.

Existing research shows the prevalence of eating disorders in Māori is equal or more than the general population.

Sara Hansen is lead researcher of the University of Auckland study. Photo / Supplied

The study was recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Eating Disorders and lead researcher Sara Hansen says New Zealand's current Covid outbreak could be seeing another surge in cases.

"The first lockdown was unprecedented, repeat lockdowns may affect people differently," said the final-year medical student.

The study does not look at causes but existing research suggests social restriction, altered routine, altered access to treatment services, and social messages around exercise and weight gain are factors.

"Disordered eating may be fueled by people's desire to assert control over their bodies and lives in the midst of disruption and uncertainty," said co-author Associate Professor David Menkes.

In June, 3098 people signed a petition urging the Government to provide more expert care and subsidy assistance for young people with eating disorders.

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