Even if you’re lucky enough to have your health and livelihood unaffected by the coronavirus, it’s near-impossible that the scale of the pandemic has bypassed you entirely. Residents of the U.S., the U.K., Italy, India and more are on lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread, with California, New York, Oregon and several other states urging residents to stay at home.
This mandated self-isolation poses some degree of a challenge for just about everyone, but it’s having an outsized effect on eating-disorder sufferers, who total at least 30 million people of all ages and genders in the U.S.
Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, yet despite the efforts of initiatives like the National Eating Disorder Awareness helpline, they remain difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to treat. Eating disorders “thrive on shame and secrecy,” according to the Maryland-based Eating Disorder Center, and our present national circumstances are a breeding ground for both.
“Telling a person with an eating disorder that they can’t leave their apartment for two weeks is like saying, ‘You have two weeks to indulge in all the behavior you haven’t exhibited since you were in recovery,'” said Ruthie Friedlander, founder of The Chain, a New York non-profit that provides peer support for women working in the fashion and entertainment industries who are struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder.
“If you are single or live alone, it can be a really dangerous situation,” Friedlander added. “A lot of people living with eating disorders also have a lot of fears and phobias around illness, so it’s an extra-heightened time of fear.”
Friedlander pointed to the rise of jokes about the “corona diet” and the “corona 15” as presenting a particular challenge for those living with eating disorders, noting that stress is likely to reactivate patterns of disordered eating even for those in recovery: “Eating disorders creep up when you’re isolated, or anxious, or under the weather. They thrive in these conditions.”
“Corona diet” jokes may seem like an innocent attempt to cope with our current reality via humor, but according to Nina*, a 30-year-old eating disorder sufferer, they can have a lasting impact on those grappling with food issues.
“Suddenly there’s casual fatphobia everywhere—like, if you eat all your “quarantine snacks,” are you really saying the worst thing that’s going to happen to you is running out of snacks?” Nina asked. “I have a suspicion the “joke” is that you’re afraid of weight gain, which… that’s not the worst thing that could happen to you in this climate by a mile, and it’s so disheartening that people still think it is.”
Certified health coach and emotional eating expert Isabel Foxen Duke echoed Friedlander’s concerns about self-isolation re-triggering eating-disorder sufferers, explaining, “Eating disorders are highly related to stress and anxiety. They’re control issues; it’s all about control.”
27-year-old eating disorder sufferer Ellie* noted that she’s struggling with exactly that loss of control right now: “The nature of quarantine is itself an ED mindset: you are, essentially, forced to ration food. Compound that with a fear that even those without disordered eating are facing right now—the fear that there won’t be food left on the shelves in a week—and you’ve essentially exacerbated the most basic anxieties of people with any ED.”
Foxen Duke, the founder of Stop Fighting Food, also pointed out that the economic crisis caused by COVID-19 will pose new challenges for mental health care recipients and providers. “The economy is tanking, which will disable many resources [for those who suffer from eating disorders.] I’m already seeing people saying, ‘I just lost 25 percent of my money overnight, my business has closed down.’ Online therapy is a bit of an adjustment, but it’s the least of our problems when you look at people losing access to care altogether.”
“It’s almost like [food] restriction has been validated by the current social narrative regarding COVID-19—not that pervasive imagery in the media wasn’t validating it in the first place,” said eating disorder sufferer Jen, 25. Resources like the NEDA Helpline and Overeaters Anonymous’s telephone meetings are important tools in the fight to equip eating disorder sufferers with virtual resources, but everyone who’s online can play a part—at a time like this, it’s on all of us to make sure our behavior isn’t inadvertently making matters worse for those around us.
*Names have been changed