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The pandemic is fueling eating disorders, and Wisconsin lacks enough treatment

Posted at 6:50 PM, Nov 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-07 19:50:58-05

Wisconsin is currently recruiting more doctors, dietitians, and therapists who are specially trained to deal with eating disorders.

This comes as eating disorders are thriving during the pandemic. Hot line calls to the National Eating Disorders Association have been up 70 to 80 percent in recent months.

Rachel Quast can barely keep up with the calls she gets from people seeking help. She says the uptick started just a month or two into the pandemic.

“I’ve gotten some of the most heartbreaking calls,” Quast says. “Within one week I had two different parents call about their teenagers who were struggling and suicidal.”

Quast is a certified counselor in Milwaukee, and a national speaker on eating disorders.

She is the creator of "SHED" which stands for Self-Healing Through Education.

Quast’s own battle with eating disorders started when she was a kid. By 14, she weighed 54 pounds.

"They said I didn't have a whole lot longer to live,” Quast said. “I believe it because, just the way my heart was beating, and things were failing in my body, I could tell.”

Quast went through years of different treatment and some relapses for anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.

It wasn't until finding she found her purpose in helping others and speaking out about the challenge, that she truly found healing.

“Stories like when I spoke at a junior high, and a counselor later telling me that afterwards, three kids confessed they were bulimic,” Quast said. “That helped me to know I was striking a chord, and helping people get well. That's really what I want for people so bad, complete physical, emotional, spiritual wellness. How can it not fill you up, knowing your pain is now serving other people?”

But Quast admits, she has never seen the demand for help so high. Neither has the UW Health System.

“We’ve seen the number of patients with eating disorders nearly double between 2019 and 2020,” said Dr. Paula Cody, the Medical Director of Adolescent Medicine at the University of Wisconsin. “We’ve also seen an increase in males admitted to the hospital with eating disorders. This uptick is likely here to say. I don’t think it’s a fluke, and I don’t think it’s just going to go away once the pandemic goes away.”

Dr. Cody says the pandemic intensified the problem by prompting more stress, loss of control, and isolation. It also led to increased social media use, more photo-shopped images, focus on the billion-dollar diet industry, and people forced to look at themselves so often on a screen for virtual meetings and school.

According to the Journal of Eating Disorders, 62 percent of people in the U.S. with anorexia have experienced a worsening of symptoms through the pandemic. While 35 percent of Americans with binge-eating disorders - which are far more common - reported an increase in episodes.

This all is made worse by a shortage of available treatment options here in Wisconsin, and nationwide.

“There’s difficulty finding therapists, because they are overbooked,” Dr. Cody said. “Demand is far outpacing supply. Eating disorder treatment facilities all have long wait lists as well, because this is something we just cannot keep up with. We’re working to increase the number of beds available and working with insurance companies to help increase their coverage of mental health diagnoses.”

"I get a lot of calls from people who just can't afford treatment, and that's where I see the biggest gap of health care,” Quast said. “If you don’t have insurance or money, where do you go for help?”

And it could have deadly consequences. Dr. Cody says eating disorders have one of the highest fatality rates of any mental health disorder.

Quast and Dr. Cody are among health leaders in Wisconsin fighting for more resources.

They say eating disorders are often misunderstood as a “white woman's disease.”

That leads to early red flags often being missed when it comes to men and boys - who make up at least 25 percent of eating disorder cases.

It also leads to missed warning signs when it comes to people of color.

“What I see, is people are addressing it once it's severe,” Quast said. “We should be addressing it younger, or before it’s even a problem. Let us try to educate and empower people when it comes to body image and healthy habits.”

In what can often feel like a hopeless situation, they want people struggling with eating disorders and their families to know you can triumph over them.

“You're never hopeless, you're never done,” Quast said. “Even if you've been struggling with an eating disorder for 50 years, miracles happen. I've seen them, I've been one.”

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with an eating disorder, the best place to start is with your primary care provider to get connected or referred to help. If you are waiting on a formal treatment program, there are organizations like the National Eating Disorders Association that will connect you to a mentor, or someone to talk with over the phone, or a support group to meet with in-person or online.

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