Months of isolation and social distancing have taken their toll on Americans. But for the 30 million struggling with eating disorders, that stress can make them especially vulnerable.
Mental health experts say as social distancing enters its fourth month, they’ve seen a dramatic spike in people seeking assistance. The good news, they say, is that there is help.
Growing up in a conservative south Texas family, Eric Dorsa says not fitting a stereotypical masculine identity drove him into a dangerous relationship with food.
“I developed an eating disorder as a way to cope with emotions and thoughts and feelings about myself that I couldn't express as a child,” said Dorsa.
After 13 years of recovery, it’s still a battle.
“It was the hardest thing I've ever done,” said Dorsa. “It is like a giant car crash going off in the middle of your life and you have no choice but to deal with it.”
Dr. Ellen Astrachan-Fletcher is the clinical director of the Eating Recovery Center in Chicago. The international center treats eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating.
“Does this pandemic and the isolation contribute to worsening difficulties with eating disorders? Absolutely 100%,” said Astrachan-Fletcher.
She says for millions suffering from eating disorders, the months-long lockdowns and isolation from support systems is amplifying the problem.
With grocery stores not stocking certain products, experts say that could be a trigger for people who need that normal routine and those specific food brands to help keep them on their recovery track.
“The reality is we have to be flexible in this time because due to the pandemic things are not what we expect,” said Astrachan-Fletcher.
People turning to food for comfort and social media messaging about weight gain are not helping.
“When someone starts engaging with an eating disorder, they tend to isolate and that feeds the eating disorder,” said Astrachan-Fletcher. “So, the isolation and pushing loved ones away is one way the eating disorder grows.”
The National Eating Disorders Association says it has seen a 74% increase in calls to their help line during the pandemic as compared to the same time last year.
“Even though sometimes it feels like we're alone, you don't have to be and there are lots of people here to be there with you,” said Astrachan-Fletcher.
Astrachan-Fletcher says it’s important to seek professional help, take a friend or family member with you when you go to the grocery store, and set up virtual online dates for meal-times or snack breaks.
Dorsa says it’s important to find your helpers.
“You're not alone and you're enough just as you are,” he said. “You don't have to show up any other way other than with what you have. And let people help you find the next steps for you.”