Eating Disorders in COVID Times

Bridget discusses the issue of eating disorders through lockdown.

*Trigger warning: upcoming theme of eating disorders*

Lockdown was a humane and democratic move by governments, and in the UK alone it is estimated to have saved tens of thousands of lives. However, it wasn’t without issues. People were ordered to stay safe at home in order to remove them from the highly contagious virus. This meant that most people’s old daily routines were redundant: we had to adapt to a whole new way of existing in society. 

It’s no secret that people struggled to adjust, especially in the early months of March and April. But imagine if that routine was the only petrol fuelling your brain? With little warning, it’s stolen from you, and there’s nothing you can do about it but stay at home and wait for an update. Without that routine, people with eating disorders (EDs) often don’t function as well. EDs are rooted in control and having the autonomy to choose when and what you eat, and how you exercise. Just because you’ve recovered, doesn’t mean that you don’t still feel the urge to control what enters your body, and to exercise as you choose. Lockdown obviously messed with this, and people with EDs suffered as a consequence. 

Symptoms (including restricting, binging, purging and obsessing over body image) are reported to have worsened by 87% for those in recovery (The National Centre for Eating Disorders). Due to the secrecy of the illness, there are no definitive stats on how lockdown has affected those currently battling an ED. The best evidence we have is from Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, and their services have surged in demand by over 80% since March. In researching this article, I have come across numerous videos on YouTube that detail how anorexics have continued to restrict. I’ve watched teenage girls lament the meals they are now forced to eat in the presence of parents working-from-home. In my experience with an ED, being the only vigilant person in the room during mealtimes is preferable. 

Whenever I write about EDs, I state this fact: eating disorders have a higher mortality rate than any other mental illness. It’s meant to shock people into action, because discussions are still relatively taboo in comparison to other mental illnesses. The fact that we have no stats on those suffering during lockdown is proof of that. Wide-reaching awareness has never been achieved, and the message is more crucial than ever. Roughly 20% of university students will suffer from disordered eating at some point throughout their degree, and yet not one of the nine counsellors on our campus specialise in the area. 

What can we do about this going forward? I spoke to Alice, a second-year student who has been in recovery for three years. Alice is an advocate for diet culture reform. She hopes that people who are looking to increase awareness get in contact with Beat, who send out packs of support posters for students to place around campuses. Such help is vital, as it empowers those who are suffering and have suffered to shred the secrecy of the illness, and to take reform matters into their own hands.

For Alice, losing her university routine during lockdown was difficult. But being honest with university from day one made it easier. Tutors were consistent in their support, and the Disability and Dyslexia Service made Alice aware of support on campus. If Alice hadn’t registered, any relapses or difficult periods would have gone unsupported by university. She says this support network made first year doable as they worked with Alice to help her meet deadlines during the lockdown. Whilst services, such as counselling, are accessible to all students on campus, it is not something everyone feels comfortable trying. But the service is not only for those registered with Disability and Dyslexia. Hopefully the university’s new Student Wellbeing Strategy, introduced in August, will highlight such information through their wellbeing presence online, where students get the bulk of their Royal Holloway news. 

This is especially important with EDs on the rise. Alice saw lockdown as a breeding ground for EDs; whether it was the running ‘I’ve gained so much weight’ gag, or the recent phenomenon of ‘lockdown transformations’. Adele is the most notable of celebrities recently subjected to scrutiny about her weight. There are rampant claims that she restricts herself to around 1,000 calories a day. Due to Adele’s large female audience, and the privileges it reaps, one could argue that she is responsible for her image and what it signals. If she is restricting herself to half of the recommended caloric intake for women, and that is how she has managed to lose weight, the fact that she’s empowered is tarred by the fact that a partial starvation diet is what is making her happy. Adele, in a perfect world, would have complete agency over how she lives without the media getting involved, but we don’t live in that eutopia. Extreme weight loss ruins lives. EDs tend to stick with sufferers for upwards of eight years. It’s not just a ‘diet’, a phase or a bad habit: it’s a means to losing weight at all costs. 

Unlike on campus, EDs are not a taboo in the media, instead they’re labelled as ‘diets’ and heralded as impressive displays of willpower. Adele is just the latest victim of this treatment. However, unlike the media, campus support services are there to help students overcome mental health problems, including EDs. Post-lockdown it’s more important than ever that every student who needs it, knows that support is there, and you can recover. 

Support:

Visit Beat at https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk

Visit RHUL’s support page for EDs at https://intranet.royalholloway.ac.uk/students/help-support/counselling/self-help/eating-problems.aspx

Follow RHUL’s wellbeing Instagram at the handle @rh_wellbeing

Free call the Samaritans on 116 123

Bridget O’Sullivan