Away from her friends and regular routine, London teenager Eesha Parashara developed an eating disorder during the UK’s first national lockdown, which began last March.
Isolation and loneliness, coupled with social media, proved a toxic combination.
“When I ate every meal, my stomach would hurt for about an hour,” Parashara, 17, recalled. “Then not going to the toilet for about two weeks or three weeks. And obviously I was really bloated. And then I looked at my body in different ways. So why am I putting on weight? Why am I not going to toilet? Is there something wrong?”
Despite knowing the pitfalls, she kept comparing herself to others online.
“It is a big influence on the way you think,” she said. “Everyone else, when you’re on social media, they put up all the good parts. They never put up the negative parts of how they’re feeling, the way they look. It’s all the good angles. And you’re sat at home thinking: Why don’t I look like that?”
As light began to appear at the end of the pandemic tunnel, Parashara said she felt additional anxiety about returning to school and normal life, fearing that the opportunities for social development, important for her future at university, are irretrievably lost.
Her concerns echo the anxieties of many adolescents grappling with uncertain futures. Teenage life was stressful before the pandemic, and now memories of lockdown weigh heavy on the collective psyche.
The Prince’s Trust annual survey of young people’s happiness returned its worst findings yet at the start of this year.
One in five young people aged 16 to 25 had experienced suicidal thoughts since the start of the pandemic, 10% had self-harmed, and 22% had experienced panic attacks, according to the charity that works with young people.
Dr Jide Menakaya, Eesha’s doctor and a pediatric gastroenterology consultant at Hillingdon Hospital in West London, has seen a large increase in the number of referrals for children with eating disorders.
“Being aware of the mental health issues or emotional wellbeing issues in those children is incredibly important because, unless one addresses those, it’s very difficult to get a handle on the physical side of things,” Menakaya said.
Healthcare professionals warn that anxieties and depression, if left unchecked, can lead to acute illness later. Far from evaporating as lockdown restrictions ease, the effects will continue to evolve.
Chris Mann, head nurse at Hillingdon Hospital, pointed to climbing admission rates for children presenting with abdominal pains and deliberate self-harm.
“It’s the child’s way of telling us, and we’ve got to get smart at listening to children,” she said.