Source: Massey University
By Dr Andrea LaMarre
Change can be hard for everyone; for a lot of people with eating disorders, change can feel catastrophic. Around the world, researchers have commented on how COVID-19 has impacted people with eating disorders and their families.
They’ve written about how suddenly being stuck inside with negative thoughts about your body can lead to downward spirals. Researchers have explored the challenges of not being able to access foods that feel comfortable, as well as the potential difficulty of having a lot of food around. Home spaces are not always “safe spaces,” and being unable to leave environments that feel triggering can be problematic for people with eating disorders during lockdown. The pandemic and associated lockdowns have not been easy on supporters and caregivers, either, particularly when they do not have access to their usual support systems.
Here in Aotearoa, as well as around the globe, there have been reports of a huge surge in eating disorders cases throughout the pandemic. This uptick in help-seeking is encouraging, on the one hand, as it indicates that people are reaching out for support. On the other hand, this help-seeking is often met with wait lists as increasingly resource-strapped healthcare services try to meet the demand.
Over time therapists, psychologists and counsellors have developed strategies and policies that allow them to pivot their services to online settings, but there are aspects of eating disorder care that do not lend themselves to online delivery. These include some aspects of medical monitoring and assessment, as well as intensive forms of support.
The impact of COVID-19 and restrictions has not been uniformly negative. For some people, the pandemic has been a catalyst for committing or re-committing to recovery. Much like lockdown, not everyone experiences eating disorders—or recovery—in the same way. The pandemic has laid bare pre-existing inequalities in health and social systems, with those already facing marginalization bearing the brunt of the impact. For example, people who are food insecure may be unable to pre-supply their cupboards with food they are able to eat. This may heighten anxiety and distress related to lockdown for people with eating disorders.
Further, along with lockdown, diet talk and disparaging comments about “lockdown bodies” and the potential for weight gain march on. Pausé, Parker, and Gray wrote about how blame for ill-health has been unduly placed on fatness during the pandemic, illustrating the pernicious impacts of weight stigmatizing pandemic messaging. Addressing fatphobia and weight stigma is key to considering how to make life easier for those with eating disorders and seeking recovery. Without considering how we talk about bodies, and the negative impacts of framing fatness as the root of all problems, we cannot create the conditions for people to thrive in their bodies, no matter their size.
While it could be argued that Aotearoa has been operating “as normal” for some time now, the continued uncertainty that surrounds the pandemic has been felt by people with eating disorders and their families—as have the knock-on effects of prior restrictions. Those wait lists and service gaps have not magically cleared up between lockdowns, and many people continue to face uncertain trajectories toward recovery. We have also not seen much of a decline in messages about whose bodies fit—and whose bodies are fit—that make it hard to follow prescriptions for health and recovery that often run counter to public health messaging around food and exercise in general.
With all of this in mind, what can be done to support people who are struggling with eating disorders during this latest lockdown? Something we can all be aware of is how we talk about bodies and food—our own and others’. We can also recognize and respect how people have different ways of coping with uncertainty and crisis.
If you are looking for help navigating support systems and systems of care, Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand ( EDANZ ) offers “help for the helpers,” and provides resources about eating disorders. There are various public and private eating disorders support services available across the country if formal help is needed (though there is a dire need for more services).
As a researcher, my expertise lies in making sense of the stories people tell me in my research and the literature other researchers have written about eating disorders during these times. From these stories and this literature, I leave readers with my takeaway message, inspired by one of my favourite social theorists, Distinguished Professor Rosi Braidotti: “We are in this together, but we are not one and the same.”
With that in mind, perhaps the best thing we can do is be open to the different ways in which COVID-19 and its uncertainty impacts people—including those struggling with food and in their bodies.
Some places you can reach out to for help:
Phone: 0800 2 EDANZ or (09) 5222679 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phone: 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP) 24/7
1737 Need to Talk?
Free call or text 1737 for support from a trained counsellor
Massey Health and Counselling Centre (For Massey Students)
Phone: 09 213 6700 Email: Studenthealth@massey.ac.nz
Dr Andrea LaMarre is a lecturer in Critical Health Psychology in the School of Psychology at Massey’s Auckland campus.