I-Team: Psychologist warns pandemic causing more, severe eating disorders

A Centerville psychologist, who specializes in eating disorders, tells the I-team the pandemic has increased the numbers of people needing professional help.

“Anecdotally, I will tell you that most providers are seeing an uptick both in the frequency of eating disorders and the severity of them,” Centerville psychologist Dr. Meredith Glick Brinegar said.

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What Glick Bringer is seeing on a local level, the National Eating Disorders Association is also seeing nationally.

NEDA reports helpline calls have increased 40 percent since March 2020. In America, the nonprofit organization which supports individuals and families affected by eating disorders reports 20 million women and 10 million men will deal with an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

That includes Oakwood’s Maddie Plunkett. Pre-pandemic she started working with Dr. Glick Brinegar, who she credits with changing her life.

“Before her, I didn’t even really believe in therapy,” Plunkett said.

In part, through her sessions with Dr. Glick Brinegar, Plunkett took on a sickness she has had for as long as she can remember.

“I started having thoughts and stuff as early as kindergarten. My mom remembers picking me up one day crying because of how my legs were fat,” Plunkett said.

She was in and out of treatment during high school. By her freshman year of college, her condition had worsened.

“I noticed the physical effects, my teeth looked terrible, my hair was falling out,” Plunkett said. “I looked gray.”

The pandemic sent her home nearly a year ago. Finishing the semester online offered her time to heal.

“I needed time for the whole world to rest with me,” Plunkett said.

She felt like the pandemic’s collective grief offered her a grace period, both on social media and with school.

“This is probably going to be the only time this is going to happen ever, so this is my time to buckle down,” Plunkett said.

However, while she said the pandemic gave her space to get better, Dr. Glick Brinegar said for others the pandemic was a triggering event.

She explained, some people deal with increased pandemic stress and anxiety through eating.

“The messaging has ramped up about trying to eat your best and exercise your best,” Dr. Glick Brinegar said. “Don’t get me wrong, I think we should pay some attention to healthy eating and exercise. It’s just that some people, when you have an eating disorder, it gets taken to the extreme.”

Loneliness, isolation, and a lack of structure have only made the problems more complicated.

A study at the height of the pandemic over the summer showed 62 percent of people with anorexia and 30 percent of people with bulimia reported worse symptoms.

Dr. Glick Brinegar said there is a benefit to having to do virtual sessions as providers and clients try to socially distance. Geography is no longer a limiting factor for care.

For example, a Dayton patient could receive remote, virtual treatment from Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, or Toledo facilities.

Plunkett did not go the treatment center route this time. Instead, she still had to put in the hard work. She says she replaced eating disorder behaviors with healthy coping habits for anxiety and ADHD.

“Through that there’s absolutely no need for the eating disorder anymore, because I realize that my worth is not in my body,” Plunkett said.

However, in that body, she knows life is worth living.

“The most painful thing was not feeling like myself, and the most rewarding thing is coming back to where I really am,” Plunkett said.

Now, Maddie is sharing how she found success. She discusses her recovery on her TikTok, which she started in January. It already has more 10,000 followers.

News Center 7′s series on eating disorders, during this National Eating Disorder Awareness Week, continues Tuesday.