Note: this article contains references to body image, mental health and eating disorders.
Issues of stockpiling, the collection of food provisionally and how to manage meals going forward are normal enough conversations at this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Students returning home to be with family are talking about how and when to go to the shops, and what the pragmatic food-based choices are. This, coupled with a suspension of almost all normal means of entertainment and socialisation, makes for an environment where personal unrest isn’t more than likely, but inevitable. What needs to be considered is, as with all times of crisis, how those who are already mentally vulnerable are put at risk to a disproportionate extent.
Social media, in what is an admirable effort to bolster mental health during a time of almost exclusively virtual socialisation, is now abound with free tips on maintaining productivity and general well-being during lockdown. The conversation on general health has become inextricable with one concerning physical fitness, as the majority of formally active people have now been forced into a sedentary lifestyle. Unfortunately, this push for increased personal development and change during our communal ‘respite’ will have a necessary impact on people of all ages who suffer, or have suffered from, eating disorders, BDD or other self-image related conditions.
The unison of well-meaning advice with other friendly ‘tips’ on ‘maintaining your body’ or ‘getting a smaller waist during quarantine’ is unfortunately inescapable. Despite not following any exercise-related accounts on social media, the algorithms of platforms like Tik Tok have still suggested tips to me concerning weight loss or other forms of physical activity during the lockdown. After seeing content like this, usual coping mechanisms for avoiding negative circular thoughts or a trigger of past behaviours involve interacting with regular stimuli, maintaining your standard routine by socialising and/or working.
“What needs to be considered is, as with all times of crisis, how those who are already mentally vulnerable are put at risk to a disproportionate extent.”
Without the intervening process of college and the mental productivity and distraction it offers, un-stimulated young people are at a far higher risk of reverting to destructive and unhealthy behaviours. As a means of filling this ‘extra’ time, as is expected, engagement with others online through social media will increase, promoting more extensive personal reflection and consciousness of image during a period of already potentially damaging isolation.
During quarantine many students will naturally be led to believe they have more ‘free time’, which not only internalises pressure for those trying to grapple with an unfamiliar routine, but also promotes a belief that increased productivity is the only viable solution. This unhealthy mindset, prompted by the misleading idea that you are more ‘free’ to achieve things – when we are actually more restricted than ever – contributes to the exact mentality which can incite a potential relapse. My time spent at home, without mental stimulation and a standardised routine, has always been the worst in terms of feeling out of control of my eating disorder. The influence of a lockdown climate of ‘stay fit’ culture and the need to self-regulate my time, has put my mental health, and that of so many others, in a far more precarious position than if we were simply continuing college.
The advice on social media, while well intentioned, uses language that is often unfiltered and without warning, which can be incredibly triggering and dangerous for any person with food or body issues. In the case of this article, even, the language used by those with a wider platform needs to be careful and treated with absolute authority it holds because, as I have experienced in the past, one video or one poorly-handled byline can be the difference between sustained stability or a harmful recurrence for someone struggling with their mental health.
“It is important to recognise that, in conjunction with this change in routine, how the wider changes in society’s routine and the availability of food has can become such a specifically harmful factor for some.”
For those attempting to navigate a meal plan, or even the loose structure of something like mechanical eating, such a drastic change in routine, resources or even the type of food which is now available, can have an incredibly deep impact on personal wellbeing and undo the progress of months steadily building towards a goal. The lack of fresh fruit and vegetables, which I have experienced first hand on trips to the supermarket, could be potentially very worrying for someone who has recently entered into recovery, or is trying to adhere to a particular set of meals.
It is important to recognise that, in conjunction with this change in routine, how the wider changes in society’s routine and the availability of food has can become such a specifically harmful factor for some. A culture of stockpiling, of bulk buying particular foods or of restricting what can and can’t be eaten is happening right now, and the potential damage is very real.
The student counselling service has made efforts to continually accomodate the needs of students by offering phone calls to students in lieu of in-person sessions in an effort which, though necessary, should be commended due to the swiftness of their response. They can be reached on +353 1 896 1407 or at [email protected]. These wide-reaching changes to general lifestyle will undoubtedly affect everybody you know in some way, but there is a sense of solidarity to be found in a pandemic. However, the impact on the most vulnerable individuals, who you may or may not know, needs to be considered in the way we act and communicate with each other as we operate communally. If we consider this, hopefully we will come out of Covid-19 all the better for it.