Belgians under the age of 16 are increasingly struggling with an eating disorder, according to a survey of VRT TV’s Pano programme. The survey also shows that since the Covid-19 pandemic began, the age of young people with these disorders has gotten even younger.
The survey shows that since the Covis-19 crisis, more young people under the age of 16 are developing eating disorders, including a new group of very young teenage girls with anorexia. Some departments of children's hospitals also confirm this trend, which is also being observed on an international scale.
Children up to 15 years old with an eating disorder can stay at the PAika child psychiatric unit of the Universitair Ziekenhuis (UZ) Brussel. PAika has revealed that it receives three to four registrations per week, twice as many compared to the period before the pandemic. The average age of those admitted to the unit is now 11 to 13 years.
The Centre for Eating Disorders at UZ Gent has also noticed a clear increase. In 2020, 12 to 15-year-olds made up 6% of patients. In 2021, that had already increased by a quarter, an upward trend that is continuing in 2022.
At the child psychiatry of the ZNA Antwerp, the average age of patients with an eating disorder is 13 to 14 years, with others as young as 11 years. And the UPC in Leuven and the psychiatric clinic Alexians in Tienen also notice an increase in patients, although they did not provide exact figures.
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In the past, eating disorders usually only occurred at a later age, explained An Vandeputte, coordinator of the Eetexpert expertise centre: "The image that people have internationally is that all eating disorders have increased," she said. "But there is also a new subgroup of slightly younger patients who are malnourished. That subgroup, although limited, has escalated sharply."
One of those very young patients with anorexia is Esther. "It started with skipping breakfast when I was 11 to 12 years old," she said. "I didn't have the best group of friends, although it's not their fault at all. I am a very sensitive person, and also very sensitive to stress. That's how I started eating less and it started."
Recovery is possible
Recovery from an eating disorder takes a long time. "An average of seven years," said An Vandeputte. "It's a serious condition that impacts many areas. A young person who is growing in their identity and attaches too much importance to appearance, can get lost in it. That has an impact on emotion regulation, but also on social contacts, on the home front and on the question of how you find your way."
Esther eventually had to be admitted to the hospital because she was too weak. "In the hospital they are busy with your physical recovery, which is also very important. But at home you have to get to work afterwards, then you have to make sure that the voice in your head gets quieter." In the meantime, step by step, she is doing better, and she is able to go back to school.
Despite the increasing numbers, there is hope. "The majority recover from an eating disorder," Vandeputte emphasises.