Teen health

Teen ER Visits For Eating Disorders Have Doubled During The Pandemic

Visits also spiked for issues like tics, OCD, trauma, anxiety, and depression

by Lauren Levy
A teen girl speaks with a physician -- teen visits to the ER have spiked during COVID-19.
The Good Brigade/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has impacted all of us in different ways, big and small. But as time passes, it’s becoming clearer that the anxiety and social isolation that came with lockdowns, uncertainty, and stay-at-home mandates has taken its toll on kids — especially teen girls.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that there was a massive spike in pediatric emergency room cases for mental health concerns since the pandemic’s start. The number of weekly emergency room visits for teen girls with eating and tic disorders started to skyrocket in 2020 and continued to increase in 2021 — along with significantly more kids showing up at ERs for issues like depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders.

By January 2022, the number of weekly visits for teen girls with anxiety (both trauma and stressor-related) had also risen.

Overall, during the pandemic thus far, the number of emergency room visits for teen girls with eating disorders doubled compared to 2019 and cases of tic disorders nearly tripled.

But researchers haven’t just observed a rise in mental health-related ER visits among teen girls. From just March-October 2020, the number of children of all genders aged aged 5-11 who went to ERs for mental health-related visits increased by 24% compared to 2019. And for the 12-17 year-old age group, the number of mental health ER visits soared 31%.

What Parents Should Know About The Uptick In Adolescent Eating Disorders

After identifying these trends, the study’s authors noted, “Early identification and expanded evidence-based prevention and intervention strategies are critical to improving children’s and adolescents’ mental health, especially among adolescent females, who might have increased need.”

The spike in eating disorder cases among teen girls throughout 2020, 2021, and January 2021 warns that mental health effects of the pandemic might be “particularly high” among young girls and “could represent an overall increase in distress among females during the pandemic,” the study noted.

That’s because eating and tic disorders can occur with anxiety and depression. And eating disorders are often triggered by “pandemic-related factors” including emotional distress and lack of structure in daily routine.

The study also noted that it’s actually unexpected to see an increase in teen girls with tic disorders — it’s typically more common in males and starts earlier in childhood. But instead, the overall number of general mental health-related emergency room visits in teen boys decreased during 2020, 2021, and January 2022 compared to 2019. “These sex differences might represent differences in need, recognition, and health care–seeking behavior,” the study added.

But a toxic combination of school closures and social media also contributed to this rise in eating disorders seen among teen girls, according to Erin Parks, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the chief clinical officer Equip, a virtual eating disorder treatment provider. She told Healthline that teens spent more time on social media to combat the isolation that came with remote learning. Since then, she noted “Research recently emerged showing how social media can exacerbate poor body image, promote diet culture, and trigger eating disorders.”

For help if you suspect your child may be struggling, the National Eating Disorders Association has a Parent Toolkit with additional resources. But if you or someone you know is suffering right now, you can call (800) 931-2237, text (800) 931-2237, or chat NEDA’s hotline for immediate support.