Unique Program Treats Young Women and Men
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that weekly visits to the ER among adolescent girls (ages 12-17) with eating disorders doubled during 2020, 2021, and January 2022 compared to 2019. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) Helpline recorded a 58% increase in calls, texts, and chats from March 2020 to October 2021.
The Perfect Storm
“The pandemic provided the perfect storm for eating disorders,” comments Meghan Feehan, Psy.D., program director of Atlantic Health System’s Pediatric Eating Disorders Center, which has expanded to treat an exponential increase in young patients.
“Anxiety, the core of many eating disorders, was rampant as many hardworking, perfectionistic adolescents and teens were suddenly put into an isolated environment with less structure and predictability,” she explains. “Add to that, a bombardment of messages to be thin and exercise as much as possible during quarantine along with increased social media engagement among very vulnerable young people.”
All these factors exacerbated an already dangerous and growing problem among our nation’s youth. Hospitalizations for eating disorders in children under age 12 increased by 119% in less than a decade. Anorexia is now the third most common chronic illness among adolescents, after asthma and obesity. According to the NEDA, eating disorders have the second highest risk of death (next to opioid addiction) among mental illnesses, claiming the lives of 10,200 people each year (one person every 52 minutes).
Pathway to Recovery
Adolescent medical and mental health professionals at the Pediatric Eating Disorders Center are skilled at diagnosing and treating patients 8-21 years of age with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Located at Overlook Medical Center, the Eating Disorders Center is staffed by a multidisciplinary team of adolescent medicine physicians, child and adolescent psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, psychologists, licensed mental health professionals, registered dietitians, and creative arts therapists.
“The path to recovery begins with a phone call,” states Feehan. “We do an initial assessment by phone to determine whether patients meet the criteria for services, followed by a full assessment with an adolescent medicine physician and a behavioral health clinician. Some patients may require inpatient admission for medical stabilization before they can participate in our Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) and transition to outpatient care.” Ongoing family involvement in the care of the patient is a key element to its success.
Partial Hospitalization Program
Patients in the PHP spend seven hours per day, five days per week at Overlook, where they receive daily medical monitoring, psychiatric care, individual and family therapy, supervised meals and snacks, music and creative arts therapy, medical and nutritional education, dialectical behavior therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. The children receive at-home instruction facilitated by their school while on medical leave.
“We have the only PHP in New Jersey, offering medical monitoring and a team dedicated exclusively to children and adolescents,” points out Feehan. “Our PHP employs a family-based treatment model of therapy, the only PHP in the state using this evidence-based approach.”
Parents, Feehan explains, are critical to their child’s recovery. “We put parents in charge of refeeding their child. They take over meal prep, supervise eating, and renourish their child by reintroducing foods that were cut out during the eating disorder. When patients return to normalized eating and their physical and mental health is restored, they gradually learn to feed themselves.”
Following an average five weeks in the PHP, patients transition to outpatient care and continue to be followed by the center’s health care providers. This continuity of care, says Feehan, is another unique feature of our Pediatric Eating Disorders Center and integral to its overall success.
“Patients are typically back on track within nine to 12 months,” she says proudly.
Early Warning Signs of an Eating Disorder
- Preoccupation with weight and body image
- Unhealthy relationship with food
- Secretive with food
- Picky eating that progressively worsens
- Evidence of binge eating or purging
- Excessive exercise
- Wearing loose clothing
- Withdrawal from friends and activities
- Mood swings