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Valerie Bledsoe has said she’s already been on a downward spiral with her eating disorder since before the COVID-19 pandemic. The 40-year-old Vancouver woman suffered from poor body image for much of her life and after giving birth to a child she suffered from postpartum depression, which fueled her disorder food.

The pandemic only compounded the stress she had been under for years.

“I don’t mean to sound negative or pessimistic, but I’m really kind of like, ‘Is this how it’s going to be?'” Bledsoe said. “The pandemic has pretty much destroyed all of the progress I’ve made over the past 20 years.”

Since 2020, rates of mental illness and eating disorders have increased – Bledsoe is one of approximately 30 million Americans who will have an eating disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Eating Disorders Association.

Things are getting worse. According to a National Library of Medicine study, pandemic lockdowns have contributed to worsening eating disorder symptoms. Schedule changes, an inability to connect with support systems, and a lack of access to health care led to a “trigger environment” with increased anxiety and depression.

As many return to work, school and other in-person activities, those in pain are beginning to seek help – but the help is not there.

Not enough care

When all gyms closed for safety reasons during the pandemic, Bledsoe said she went into panic mode as she exercised compulsively every day.

Bledsoe continued to train at home and throughout the lockdown she became more obsessed with her workouts, limiting her diet and losing weight. People started commenting on her appearance, she said, and she could see it happening in front of her.

“I was just losing more and more weight,” she said. “Once I fell into this spiral, it was almost impossible to get out of it.”

She felt the virtual therapy was not effective, so she stopped all treatment. Although she considered returning to an inpatient residential program, with the pandemic so constraining, she postponed it.

Since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, Bledsoe has struggled to find some level of following. Every therapist she called was reserved. Most of the available providers wouldn’t take his insurance. More than anything, Bledsoe said she felt defeated.

According to a map from the Rural Health Information Hub, most counties in Washington and Oregon are experiencing a shortage of mental health professionals, including Clark County.

Anne Cuthbert, a licensed mental health counselor in Vancouver, said she had a waiting list for the first time – and it’s growing. Despite the burnout, Cuthbert’s providers and colleagues still say yes to working with new patients.

“There aren’t enough therapists for everyone,” Cuthbert said. “I certainly validate their frustration. It’s a huge problem. »

Fight against insurance companies

A recent study conducted by the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California found that anorexia and other forms of eating disorders can lead to serious, dangerous, and even fatal physical complications.

Jade Phillips, 17, has struggled with an eating disorder for several years. After being diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, characterized by a distorted body image and an unjustified fear of being overweight, she was hospitalized for 14 days to stabilize.

There, he was diagnosed with postural orthostatic tachycardia, which can be a side effect of anorexia that causes dizziness, difficulty thinking and concentrating, fatigue, blurred vision, palpitations, tremors, and nausea, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. She now also struggles with cognitive impairment, body dysmorphia and chronic lethargy.

The struggle for care is something Phillips and his mother, Ladonna Kirkpatrick, know well.

Phillips completed a partial hospitalization program at Providence Health and Services in Portland in 2020, then entered a residential program with Clementine in West Linn, Ore. Phillips stayed there for just under a month as the family could not afford the expensive treatment. His insurance stopped paying the bills.

Phillips attempted suicide shortly thereafter, and she was sent to Trillium Family Services in Portland for three months in 2020. She also had two other hospital stays during that time. She then went to Center for Eating Disorder Discovery Treatment in Portland because his eating disorder was compounding with other mental illnesses, including chronic depression and bipolar disorder.

Like Bledsoe, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Phillips still hasn’t found an eating disorder therapist.

Did you know?

Although eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdose, only 1 in 10 with eating disorders actually seek treatment.

— South Carolina Department of Mental Health

“I think the biggest issue is the lack of resources for patients right now, even after the pandemic,” Kirkpatrick said. “Our greatest fear is that she will die.”

Cuthbert said working with insurance companies can be difficult. It’s not uncommon for companies to refuse to cover those who need treatment for eating disorders, according to Cuthbert. She said providers either won’t accept certain insurance payments or may expend a lot of time, energy and financial security accepting them.

“It’s tragic and detrimental to everyone except the insurance company,” Cuthbert said.

Kirkpatrick was billed $4,086.19 for Phillips’ 27-day stay at the Center for Discovery Eating Disorder Treatment.

“She needed to be there. But the insurance company basically said, ‘Well, you know, she’s not on her deathbed. We don’t want to pay for it,” Kirkpatrick said. “She came home and she just deteriorated.”

Tired of confinement

The lockdowns of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused people of all ages to confront their eating disorders head-on. Cuthbert said the shutdowns made some people feel out of control once routines were disrupted, so people depended on controlled diet and exercise to feel safe.

“The pandemic has been stressful, isolating, scary and people have even emotionally shamed us for eating,” she said. “These, along with any traumatic response, will lead to an eating disorder or focusing on their body image as a means of coping.”

Kristie Brisby, 40, of Vancouver, said it was first freeing to eat during the pandemic. Before, she had trouble eating. She was taking medication that suppressed her appetite, so she had little motivation to eat.

But during the lockdown, Brisby ordered food more often and enjoyed it with her family. For once, she felt somehow free from food. But it soon became more of a coping mechanism than anything else.

“There was no reason to feel guilty. I pretty much allayed all my fears about food during COVID,” she said. “But every day was a shitty day. So the way to make me happy was to order food.

Brisby said that while she was happy to eat whatever she wanted whenever she wanted, it became her only form of entertainment while everything was closed. And the minute she started gaining weight because of this freedom with food, she started to become self-conscious about her body.

“I think all sizes are great,” she said, “but it definitely kinda destroyed my self-esteem, just me being hard on myself. It was all me.

She does not seek professional help or therapy because she said she did not want to acknowledge her disordered eating habits. Brisby said it can be scary to open up to professionals. Instead, she relies on her friendships for her support system.

She’s still working on finding a healthy relationship between her body and food, Brisby said, but it’s hard for her to break the habits created during the pandemic shutdowns. Still, she is motivated to recover.

“I was always dehydrated. I was always tired. I had no energy for anything. It was because I wasn’t fueling my body,” Brisby said. “I really want to be healthy. healthy and happy and feeling good.”