The number of hospital admissions related to eating disorders jumped by 66% last year, a new study has revealed.
Anxiety related to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact of restrictions are likely to have a played a major role in this increase, the researchers said.
Eating disorders are complex conditions which impact a person's attitudes to food and their eating behaviours. They have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.
In Ireland, the HSE National Clinical Programme for Eating Disorders applies to all those affected and it focuses on the four main disorders - anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder (BED), and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID).
While people with eating disorders can present in a variety of settings, from GP surgeries to support groups such as Bodywhys, acute hospital admissions are seen as necessary in some cases as they support "medical stabilisation, initiation of weight restoration and psycho-education".
Researchers from Temple Street Children's University Hospital and the School of Medicine at UCD noted that international centres had recorded increases in acute presentations during the pandemic, particularly among those with anorexia.
They decided to assess the Irish situation.
They pointed out that earlier in 2020, they found a 25% increase in patient admissions between March and September 2020, compared to the same timeframe in 2019. Some 40% of these admissions were among males, which they said was "considerable higher to any previous year".
They also noted that the children admitted in 2020 were in a worse place medically than those admitted in 2019.
"These children are sicker, presenting with lower median body mass index (BMI), are more medically compromised and are more unstable," the researchers said.
Furthermore, having reviewed the overall year, they found "a 66% increase in admissions in 2020 compared to 2019".
"Distress, anxiety relating to the pandemic, pre-existing morbidity, the interplay of social and economic factors, the impact of restrictions and losses of protective factors, all likely play a role.
"More online time for example, may facilitate increased exposure to ED-specific or anxiety-provoking media," the researchers pointed out.
They emphasised the importance of community mental health services, but said that within paediatric hospital sites, the "adequate resourcing of psychological medicine teams, and the training of paediatricians with an interest in this arena, are vital and urgent needs".
They pointed to a survey of paediatric trainees in Ireland, which found that even though 84% reported being involved in the management of a child with a mental health disorder in 2019, just 8% felt well prepared in dealing with child and adolescent mental health.
"Perhaps the pandemic, and new ways of working, present an opportunity to develop truly collaborative working relationships, and new ways to meet training and teaching needs to improve paediatric eating disorder care," they concluded.
This study is published in the Irish Medical Journal.
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