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Youth eating disorders are on the rise

"It is definitely a big problem with my age range and with the development of social media of seeing edited photos and things that aren't real," one student said.

PORTLAND, Maine — In the shadows of secrecy, eating disorders thrive, often targeting the vulnerable, especially our youth. 

The pandemic ushered in a new era of challenges, among which, was the surge in eating disorders. 

Dr. Jonathan Fanburg, a specialist at Maine Medical Center, reveals that they now receive approximately four new referrals per week. With the academic year beginning, this number is expected to rise.

One of those students is Alice O'Connor, a young girl battling an eating disorder, shared her story with us. Her struggle began during the pandemic when she was confined to her home.

"I was locked away in my house, and there was nothing to do but eat and sit around and not get exercise," O'Connor said. 

She was just 13 when the pandemic started. Now, at 17, she's two years into her battle with an eating disorder.

O'Connor said, "Coming out of quarantine and seeing people again, I got a lot of comments on my body and how it had changed."

During the lockdown, Alice grew from 5'2" to 5'7" and weighed 150 pounds, which left her feeling uncomfortable in her own skin.

"Every day I would wake up and weigh myself, and that would determine how many meals I got to have,"* she said.

Her obsession with weight led her to stop eating altogether, resulting in her weight plummeting to 115 pounds. 

After suffering in silence for a year, she finally confided in her parents and began her journey to recovery under the care of Fanburg at Maine Medical Center.

Fanburg emphasizes the critical importance of timely treatment, stating that currently, there is a one to two-month waiting period for new patients. 

This wait can be devastating for someone who has lost a significant amount of weight. Patients often struggle for three to 12 months before seeking help, underscoring the urgency of addressing this issue promptly.

Teachers and school nurses are often the first to witness signs of eating disorders in minors.

Barb Parent, a school nurse at Hampden Academy, notes that cafeterias can become uncomfortable places for students with eating disorders.

"Cafeterias become a place where students with eating disorders feel out of place and just don't eat," Parent said.

She also highlights the detrimental impact on students' academic and athletic performance.

"They aren't doing as well as they would normally do, in academics or in their sport," she added.

Alice further emphasizes the impact of social media on her age group and how it contributes to body image. 

"It is definitely a big problem with my age range. And with the development of social media, of seeing edited photos and things that aren't real, you want to become the beauty standard, and it's not a healthy way of living," Alice said.

Fanburg also highlights a pressing issue, the scarcity of counselors experienced in treating eating disorders in Maine. This shortage exacerbates the problem, leading to an increasing number of patients being diagnosed every week.

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