How to Get Help With Eating Disorders


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Eating disorders aren’t always obvious from the outside.

Eating disorders have become a severe problem among teenagers through the years of the pandemic. In 2020, this disordered behavior became prominent online, and teens’ newfound free time introduced more to these behaviors than ever before.

A study by the National Institute of Mental Health reports that 2.7% of teenagers struggle with eating disorders. The National Eating Disorder Hotline has seen a 40% increase in calls since 2020. 35% of calls in 2021 were from people between the ages of 13-17.

According to the New York Times, the rise in eating disorders can be linked to the isolation everyone felt at the beginning of 2020. Teens who would thrive in academics or extracurricular activities found themselves lost during May 2020 and many created fitness or health goals to keep feeling productive.

Teenagers often looked at social media for fitness information. While looking for inspiration, many found harmful social media posts encouraging eating disorders.

“The comparison that happens online is normally not with realistic images. Most images are doctored and the people in them may look happy but a lot of the time that isn’t necessarily true,” said Jill Asprey, the Kennedy school nurse. 

The main eating disorders seen in teenagers are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating. Each eating disorder has different symptoms and affects everyone individually.

“Restriction is more common right now in what I see. I haven’t heard of purging as much. I’ve just seen more students who are simply not eating,” Asprey said.

Anorexia is generally the most well-known eating disorder. People with anorexia are strict with what they eat. Anorexia can sometimes include fear of gaining weight and body dysmorphia—obsessive focus on a small flaw in appearance.

Bulimia patients consume large amounts of food and afterward will “purge” their stomachs by inducing vomiting. 

Anorexia patients normally have irregularly low weight. Bulimia patients may have any body type. Both disorders can cause low blood pressure, irregular heartbeats and being tired, weak or faint. In females, anorexia can affect menstrual periods and, in younger individuals, anorexia may slow puberty due to lack of nutrition. Select cases may cause long-term low red blood cell count.

Sophomore Abigail Richey, who is in recovery from anorexia and purging tendencies, struggled with obsessive thoughts about food.

“If I eat this, how will that affect my body? Will it make me gain weight?”

Binge eating is commonly connected to bulimia. Everyone may binge eat at some point in their lives, but that does not mean they have the disorder. Binge-eating disorder refers to people who binge eat without control at least three times a week.

Common themes in patients with binge-eating disorders are low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, feelings of helplessness and having troubles coping with strong emotions. Binge-eating disorder has more long-term side effects like diabetes, high blood pressure, fatty liver and sleep apnea, which causes interrupted breathing while you sleep.

Identifying an eating disorder can be a struggle because everyone is affected differently. People with eating disorders will often deny having a problem and approaching them about the issue may be hard. Despite this, early identification can play a positive role in how a person recovers.

Poor mental health is connected to eating disorders. Low-self esteem from eating disorders may cause mental health issues, like anxiety and depression. 

“I struggled with anxiety and depression for most of my life,” Richey said.  “I didn’t know about it, so I had all these overwhelming emotions that I would bury and [my eating disorder] is how I coped.”

If any change in eating habits is observed, it is best to take action. Skipping meals, refusing to eat certain foods, counting calories and even exercising excessively can be indicators of an eating disorder. 

Asprey urges teenagers who suspect they or a friend has an eating disorder to reach out to parents, school nurses or counselors. Asprey advises to not get discouraged if you are not able to help a friend yourself. Sometimes, it is better to get professional insight on the problem.

“Sometimes people try to deal with [an eating disorder] on their own, but getting a professional involved that has a lot of experience in that area can turn things around a lot quicker,” said Asprey.

Kennedy’s typical approach to concerns about eating disorders is to ask the student questions about their eating habits to determine if there is a problem and how to approach it. They will encourage students to let them speak to family so the student can get professional support from physicians, mental health counselors or health clinics.

Richey reminded students to not feel alone in recovery and know there are people who understand what you’re going through.

“Don’t be afraid to ask,” said Richey.