UCSF: Number of patients seeking help for eating disorders doubled during pandemic

Doctors say there's been a surge in teens and young adults seeking help for eating disorders during this pandemic.

UCSF says it has seen the number of patients double.

Experts say it's a mental illness with physcial complications that could have deadly consequences if left untreated.

Amy, who declined to give her last name, often takes walks to Sutro Heights Park near San Francisco's Ocean Beach.   

It's an activity she says is helping in her recovery from anorexia.

"Walking with my dog out here, it's beautiful. It helps me connect with the world outside," says Amy.  

She says her struggle with an eating disorder started with a desire to lose weight when she was 15. But it soon became an obsession.

"I started to fear food. It wasn't a choice anymore," says the 23-year-old.

She says she has been hospitalized and received intensive treatment after her release.

"I was so afraid of how I looked, a lot of that I'm still working with now," says Amy and that her recovery is a journey.

Experts say the isolation brought on by the pandemic can lead to a relapse.

"It's not like you can take an antiobiotic and you can be cured. It does often involve months, if not years, of therapy and medical monitoring," says Dr. Jason Nagata, an eating disorder specialist with UCSF.

He says 10% of those who suffer from anorexia die.

The doctor says the number of teens and young adults UCSF is treating has doubled during the pandemic.

The National Eating Disorders Association reports a 78% increase in people contacting its helpline  during the COVID-19 crisis.

Nagata says loneliness is a factor, "School with Zoom is not quite the same as in person. So a lot of people have struggled with those social interactions. And support via Zoom is not as strong as it would be in person."

He says boys are often overlooked, especially athletes. And that eating disorders manifest differently in them.

They may work out excessively.

"Boys may be trying to gain muscularity by taking performance enhancing drugs, supplements, steroids," says Nagata.   

Nagata says attending classes and working from home also makes food readily available.

For Amy, support from family and friends along with therapy have made the difference.

"Everyone who may be struggling to reach out and they're not alone. There is help out there and there is hope," says Amy.  

Nagata says one in three patients are boys.

Signs of an eating disorder include: young people not wanting to eat meals with family, obsessing about food, and vomiting to control weight. 

The doctor says the holidays can be a difficult time with more food around.

Contact the NEDA helpline: 1-800-931-2237

National Eating Disorder Association