The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are warning of a rise in eating and tic disorders among teenage girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Echoing prior research, a new study found the proportion of emergency department visits with eating disorders doubled among adolescent girls; those for tic disorders approximately tripled during the pandemic. Tic disorders are characterized by repeated twitches, movements or sounds that people do involuntarily.
“The results of the report are unsurprising,” said Dr. Neha Chaudhary, child psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School and chief medical officer at BeMe Health. “This is quite in line with what I’m seeing in my clinical practice and what I’m hearing from teens directly. Many teens with preexisting conditions like depression or anxiety noted worsening of their symptoms since the pandemic, while others without previously diagnosed conditions noted having symptoms for the first time.”
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In their report, the CDC researchers said eating disorders can be triggered by pandemic-related stress, such as lack of structure and daily routine. But they said the increased visits for tic disorders was “atypical” because tic disorders usually start earlier in childhood, and more typically among males.
Researchers have suggested that exposure to severe tics on social media might be associated with the increased tic disorder visits among teenage girls, calling them “TikTok Tics.” These types of tic disorders have distinct features from Tourette syndrome, which is a tic disorder often diagnosed in younger children. In addition, tic disorders can be triggered by stress.
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In 2021, several major pediatric health organizations announced a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. In the past 10 years, there has been a rise in child and adolescent mental health issues, and by 2018, suicide was the second-leading cause of death for youth ages 10 to 24. These issues have worsened in the context of pandemic-related stressors, which have disrupted safety and stability of families and daily living structure.
LGBTQ children are even more at-risk of suicide, according to Elizabeth Thompson, CEO of the National Eating Disorders Association.
“The sky rocketing increase in numbers (50 and 70% over previous time periods) reported by the CDC relative to children’s visits to the emergency room during COVID for self harm or suicidality due to increasing mental health issues, including eating disorders, mirrors what we have seen as we analyzed our Helpline data,” Thompson said in a statement.
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“Teens everywhere have been hit harder than most groups by the stress of the pandemic,” said Chaudhary. “It’s no wonder that their mental health has been declining when their usual supports — like structure, routine and peer connections — have been ripped out from under them for the past two years.”
In a second report released Friday, the CDC found a drop in overall emergency department visits for any reason in the past two years. Experts caution the lower rate of emergency department visits could be because people were afraid to visit medical centers during the pandemic.
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But despite the overall drop, there was a rise in emergency department visits for specific reasons, such as self-harm, firearm injuries, drug poisonings and mental health conditions such as eating disorders, particularly in teenage girls.
“Some teens have shared that during times of great uncertainty, they find themselves changing their eating patterns as an unsuccessful attempt to regain a sense of control,” said Chaudhary. “They often realize that it’s happening, but find it difficult to stop without additional support.”
Eating disorders affect 9% of the U.S. population, and will affect close to 30 million Americans in their lifetime, according to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders.
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Parents, siblings and friends should be aware of signs of eating disorders, which can include restricting food intake as well as routinely binge-eating and/or purging.
“I commend the teens who are reaching out to professionals for help, even via ED visits,” said Chaudhary. “I hope to see more proactive supports in places for teens so that they can get help with their mental health conditions before it becomes an emergency.”