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HIDDEN ILLNESSES: Pandemic causes eating disorder surge in Iowa

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University of Iowa Hospitals offers in-patient and out-patient programs for those suffering from eating disorders.

WATERLOO, Iowa (KWWL)-- As the pandemic winds down, a hidden illness has seen a dramatic increase of cases across Iowa's youth.

Eating disorders range from anorexia and bulimia to binge eating, with dangerous consequences including death.

Around 5% of teens report dealing with behaviors linked to an eating disorder, with most beginning between the ages of 11 to 20. One third reported the disorder lasting up to five years.

Eating disorders are most commonly associated with the need for control, and Eating Disorder Coalition of Iowa Sara Schwatken says that after this last year, teens lost their control.

"For teens not knowing what school is going to look like, not seeing their friends, a lot of power was taken away from kids and teenagers," Schwatken said.

At the University of Iowa, eating disorder out-patient and in-patient services are offered for anyone experiencing a disorder.

Erin Martin, Eating Disorders Medical Director at the University of Iowa, has seen an increase in patients.

"The numbers aren't in yet but we've seen an increase of severity of the presentations of the problems," she said.

"Ever since last Mid-April, we've started seeing more phone calls daily and that has not stopped," Her colleague and eating disorder specialist Lynne Vestal added.

Vestal says they've observed certain personality traits that may make some children more at risk, like perfectionism, and a need for routine.

These personality traits plus the pandemic caused what she said is "the perfect storm" for eating disorders to arise in young adults.

Schwatken advises parents to talk with their children first if they suspect something is going on.

"The first line of defense should always be the source. Talk with your child, in a non-defensive, supportive way."

Eating Disorders Coalition in Iowa has a wide range of resources on their website, including a list of providers in every area.

At the University of Iowa, in order to keep up with the recent increase of patients they've launched a new patient program for 13 year olds and up for treatment.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call or text the eating disorder hotline at (800) 931-2237.

Emma'le Maas

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