Friday, December 8, 2023

The Sudden Rise Of Eating Disorders in NZ: Why The Pandemic Was ‘The Perfect Storm’ & What Warning Signs To Look For

Capsule chats to eating disorder recovery coach Jess Dyson about the sudden rise of eating disorders in NZ, and the warning signs to look for both in your children, and in yourself.

TW: This story contains detailed discussion of Anorexia, and disordered eating.

Before Covid-19, PREKURE eating disorder recovery coach Jess Dyson says that there were so many professionals and relatively so few clients, they “used to fight over people, because there wasn’t enough clients.” That’s not the problem anymore.

Once Covid hit, Jess says, the rate of people seeking help for eating disorders shot up 40% overall – and in her own clinic, Redefined Coaching, there was a time during the pandemic when it was going up 40% a month.

“They call [Covid-19] the perfect storm,” Jess says. “You have to have a gene to get Anorexia, and then you go through a big stressor, and then there’s a restriction of calories, and then it flicks it into action.”

“With Covid, it was a huge stressor for many people. And then there were so many messages like ‘don’t overeat in lockdown, don’t get fat!’ So people start exercising more and restricting calories,” she says. It is, by far, the largest spike she’s seen in her career.

Like so many mental health resources in Aotearoa, the system became flooded and couldn’t keep up with the extraordinary increase in demand. “Before Covid, our public health system was set up for a certain amount of people, and it was working quite well,” she says. “Same with our private clinics.”

“Then, suddenly there was an influx of people needing help and the result was waiting lists that were months and months long, which is incredibly hard because early intervention for eating disorders is so important.”

When it comes to her own clinic, a large part of the new client base were adolescents, as well as people experiencing a relapse. Support is a key part of maintaining recovery from an eating disorder and the isolation of lockdowns reduced the support available. It was particularly difficult for young people experiencing this for the first time, Jess says.

“They haven’t got the tools or the resilience needed to navigate this, or the support,” she says. “Suddenly your school moves online, but the pressure is still there, without the support.”

On top of that, Jess says, we live in a ‘diet culture’, so the messaging that our young people are facing out in the world can be relentless. This is why the messages they get at home can be incredibly important.

“As a parent, avoid going on diets and limit any diet talk in the house,” she advises. “Limit any conversation around food being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – food is food. Try and get your teenager to have a variety of food, no food is ever ‘off the table’ permanently.”

Eating Disorder Red Flags To Look For As A Parent

– Your child starts setting rigid rules around food.

– You notice a change in mood or personality. “Some become more withdrawn and socially isolated,” Jess says. “However some can also continue to be high achievers and soldier on regardless.”

– Weight loss – but it doesn’t have to be as drastic as you might think. “It can be weight loss that is still considered ‘a healthy weight,’” Jess says.

– Going to the bathroom a lot after meals.

– Body image obsession – looking in the mirror constantly, being overly concerned with clothing sizes, weighing or measuring food.

Why Early Intervention Is Critical for Eating Disorders

As soon as you start noticing those red flags, Jess says, seek help, because “things can deteriorate quickly.”

The first stop is your family GP, but Jess says this can be a mixed bag, as GPs are not trained about eating disorders. “As a parent, you may have to fight to have it taken seriously.” They can either refer you to into the public system, or you can go privately and get an assessment.

Eating Disorder Red Flags To Look For As An Individual

– Are you thinking about food or planning how to handle your next meal constantly?

– Are you becoming more rigid about what you eat?

– Has your motivation around eating changed? “Eating well and exercising are not bad things, but if there is anxiety, stress or guilt attached to it, then it’s not healthy.”

– Have you become increasingly socially withdrawn around events or occasions that deal with food?

Eating Disorders In A Bigger Body

It’s common to associate eating disorders with extremely underweight people, but a significant amount of eating disorders can be found in all types of bodies.

“Atypical anorexia means you have all the behaviours, all the thoughts, all the feelings – the weight and body image obsession and everything, but you’re considered ‘a healthy weight,’” Jess says. “And that covers a lot of people.”

“It’s all about the mental state, that’s what I focus on,” Jess says. “Obviously, eating disorders impact people in a physical way but it doesn’t matter what weight you are, what size you are – you can be struggling with an eating disorder.”

How To Include Someone With At Eating Disorder At Social Events

For someone living with an eating disorder, the biggest fear at public events – or even at their home dinner table – is judgement. So creating a safe space for them is key.

Don’t say anything about their eating – how much they’re eating, what they look like, if they look healthy… don’t say ANYTHING,” Jess says. “Include them in normal conversation. Showing up is a big enough deal, so being normal with them in that environment is really helpful.”

If you are parenting an adolescent with an eating disorder, have a chat to them around what the meal/event will look like so they have an expectation going in, to help manage their anxiety. “’This is what you can have, this is what we’ll do if it gets a bit too much; we’ll go sit somewhere else,’” Jess suggests.

Remember That There Is Always Hope

When Jess was 14, she went through an eating disorder and so did both of her sisters. All three are now fully recovered, and Jess credits their parents with pushing them to get help. “When you’re in the thick of it, the idea of change is too scary,” she says. “I needed my parents to take the lead, I would never have had the courage to do it for myself.”

In hindsight, she wishes that during treatment, she had been given more hope that a normal life was possible. It’s one of the reasons she’s working with PREKURE, an organisation committed to revolutionising healthcare by training health coaches and educating health professionals in the latest approaches to preventative medicine

“Having that different kind of support – having someone walk the journey alongside you and meet you where you’re at is very helpful,” Jess says. Having her own personal experience with an eating disorder means that Jess is incredibly passionate about showing that there is a big, bright light at the end of the tunnel for those who are currently struggling.

“Regardless of what’s going on, there is always, always, always hope for change. Because we have the ability to change our minds,” she says. “It’s so important to reach out for help, and it takes courage.”

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