Duval County

A domino effect of the pandemic: severe eating disorders on the rise among teens in Jacksonville

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The coronavirus pandemic is impacting our teens in many ways. Right now, medical experts across the globe are seeing the risk of eating disorders nearly double from last year. At Wolfson Children’s Hospital, there has been a steady increase in the number of patients since March 2020.

The triggers for most seem to be isolation, additional time online, and less interaction with others due to COVID-19 safety protocols.

“You’re so isolated. You’re now staying home,” Kaitlyn Chana said. “You can’t control the things around you and that heightens this uncertainty.”

Chana struggled for more than 10 years with three eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder.

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There are several red flags to look out for when it comes to eating disorders. The most common are extreme changes in appetite, over-exercising, and restrictive dieting. Wearing baggy clothes often, trying to hide skin, and severe weight loss are also signs to keep an eye out for.

Some more specific characteristics based on the type of eating disorder include the following:

Anorexia nervosa

  • Constantly expressing disappointment about their body or being unsatisfied with the way they look, even if they are fit and toned
  • Maintaining a bodyweight that is at least 15% below average for their age and height
  • Missing at least three menstrual cycles consecutively
  • Intense fear of gaining weight or appearing fat

Bulimia nervosa

  • Becoming obsessive of body shape or weight
  • Episodes of uncontrolled eating that occur at least two times a week for up to three months or longer
  • Frequent trips to the restroom after a large meal

Binge-eating disorder

  • Continuous weight gain
  • Eating in secret and feeling shameful when a friend or loved one finds their food stash
  • Intense satisfaction while eating, followed by remorse and mood swings

This is all according to Mental Health and First Aid. Chana suffered from all three at different points in her life.

“There was a time in my life it became definitive: either ‘Kaitlyn you’re going to live with the eating disorder or you’re going to die from the eating disorder, but you can’t have a both ways’,” Chana said.

After a decade of trying to kick these harmful habits, she forced herself into recovery, with a lot of help.

“I cut everything cold turkey,” Chana said. “One day, walked into a doctor’s office and I was like ‘I need help: this is what I’ve done for the last 10 years, this decade, and I need help just trying to navigate the system.’”

She’s in a much better place now. Chana is working to complete two master’s degrees at the University of North Florida. She also started her own nonprofit, Reel Stories Real People. Chana said she’s working on a documentary on eating disorders, in an effort to help young women who are where she once was.

However, 2020 was a year of stress. There were moments when Chana had to resort to what she calls her “toolkit.”

“I would come to this toolkit when I was in the midst of a lot of high anxiety and depression,” Chana said. The red box she keeps in her apartment is filled with a variety of coping mechanisms. Inside you can find words of affirmation, an “emergency 911 card” that has a list of things to do to distract her mind, and a letter to herself, which reminds her of how much she has overcome.

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Still, the pandemic has had a negative impact on those in recovery and those currently battling an eating disorder.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in severity through COVID and through quarantine,” Lindsay Powers said. She is lead dietician at Wolfson Children’s Hospital, dealing with inpatient care. “To me, in my practice, I’ve never seen some as young as that. We’ve had quite a few (aged) 10, 11, 12.”

The cases are on the rise and the severity of the cases is high.

“They’re coming in with drastic weight loss, severe exercise, severe changes in diet,” Powers said.

She blames several factors, all ripple effects of the pandemic.

“A complete change in these kids’ world. The uncertainty. Going from in person seeing their friends. Going to school to the remote,” Powers said. “There’s so much fad diet and false information out there. There’s TikToks on how to lose weight.”

With the high volume of patients coming through the door, Powers said outpatient facilities are jam-packed. Those facilities are where the real recovery work begins.

“We’re getting them stabilized, but then their next projected treatment is two to four weeks out,” Powers said. “Our planning is ‘what do we do in the meantime? Or how do we get them into these facilities faster?’”

She adds that many parents are having to choose options in Tallahassee or Georgia for outpatient care.

“We really need to work together and create a good system of care for these patients, because they do fall through the cracks,” said Dr. Terrie Andrews, system administrator of Baptist Behavioral and Wolfson Children’s Behavioral Health. She adds that without good health care, it’s hard to get the right resources. There’s a big push among medical personnel at Baptist to change that.

Dr. Andrews said that there are some things parents can do to help their child, if he/she is struggling with these types of illness.

She suggests:

  • Asking open-ended questions like “how are you feeling?”
  • Give dinner options instead of asking someone what they want to eat
  • Address any trauma your child may have endured. This is often a trigger for disorders

Powers also suggest keeping a watchful eye for certain red flags:

  • Refusing to eat
  • Restrictive diets
  • Drastic weight loss
  • Lethargy
  • Change in skin
  • Change in appearance
  • Wearing very baggy clothing; trying to hide skin

For those out there battling an eating disorder, know you are not alone. Chana said it’s constantly a work-in-progress and to allow yourself some grace.

“I can sit here and say I’m fully recovered from an eating disorder, but just like you have to take your car in for maintenance, to be able to get your oil changed, and your tires rotated, I’m the same way; I have to check in with myself,” Chana said.

If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder call the National Eating Disorder Association helpline at 800-931-2237. Visit www.nationaleatingdisorders.org for more information.

Local outpatient resources:

Turning Tides Eating Disorder Treatment Center: serving both adolescents ages 12 through 17 and adults. The program consists of partial hospitalization and an intensive outpatient program.

The Body Image Counseling Center: specializes in help for anorexia, bulimia, compulsive overeating, parents, and fixing relationship problems, among other services.