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'Everything just really escalated' Pandemic fueled eating disorders, local counselors provide resources

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Posted at 6:50 AM, Mar 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-03-21 09:50:29-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The pandemic fueled eating disorders across the country, leaving many struggling to cope. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Eating Disorder hotline saw a 40% increase in call volumes.

The pandemic spiked the number of hospitalizations, especially in adolescents, due to an eating disorder. The University of Michigan Medical School found the number of hospitalizations increased by 25% during the pandemic. The university found 125 hospitalizations during the first 12 months of the pandemic while during the same time between 2017 and 2019, the average was 56 patients.

Danielle Hendrix, a dietician at local treatment center Sierra Tucson, said eating disorders can be lethal.

"We did see an increase in hospitalizations, because again with the heightened anxiety and isolation we saw more severe cases," she said.

She said eating disorders are more common than people may think. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders reports about 28.8 million Americans from an eating disorder.

“Between all the dieticians on staff here at Sierra Tucson, we get request to meet with about 60 percent of the population so many people are dealing with some type of disordered eating," she said.

She said there's a spectrum between disordered eating and eating disorders. Disordered eating may include similar symptoms and behaviors but less frequently than an eating disorder. For something to be diagnosed as an eating disorder, it must meet the criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the diagnostic tool by the American Psychiatric Association.

"Disordered eating is more of a gray area," Hendrix said. "A person might exhibit some of the characteristics of an eating disorder, like they may restrict food."

From social media to diet commercials, she said we are constantly bombarded with "healthy" lifestyle examples.

"Once we start to put moral value on certain foods or all foods, that’s when our relationship towards food can get complicated,” she said.

Over at the University of Arizona, the coordinator for eating disorder services Jan Courtney said the counseling community had to find new ways to provide care like using Zoom.

“That made some of the intense programs for some of our inpatient services to be done virtually," she said.

There's a support group on campus that meets once a week on Tuesday afternoons. It's called Campus Eating Disorder Awareness and Recovery Group or CEDAR.

“We talk about the effect of social media and we talk a lot about body image and encourage people to have these conversations," Courtney said.

Hendrix and Courtney echo the same mantra: the first step to recovery is talking about the problem and people's feelings towards food.

“Very often, for the residents that I'm working with, this is the first time that they are talking about this out loud," Hendrix said.

For those looking for resources, the National Eating Disorder hotline is available Monday through Friday. People can call or text (800) 931-2237.

In our area, here is a list of resources.

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Tina Giuliano is a reporter for KGUN 9. She joined KGUN 9 in September of 2021 as a multimedia journalist. She is a native Arizonan and grew up in Scottsdale. Her career in journalism started when she was five years old during her first trip to the Grand Canyon where she recorded everything she saw in her little purple notebook. Tina is passionate about storytelling and is excited to get to work telling Tucson's stories. Share your story ideas and important issues with Tina by emailing tina.giuliano@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.