Newswise — Over the past two and a half years, COVID-19 has not been the only illness on the rise. Stress, isolation and barriers to treatment affected many different conditions, including eating disorders, which rose in both number and severity.

To improve early detection and prevention of eating disorders in adolescent girls, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has awarded a three-year nearly $1.5 million grant to two faculty members at Washington University in St. Louis to implement their Body U program in Missouri middle and high schools.

Recipients of the HHS grant are Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft, associate professor of psychiatry at the School of Medicine, and Denise Wilfley, the Scott Rudolph University Professor of Psychiatry, of medicine and of pediatrics at the School of Medicine, and of psychological and brain sciences in Arts & Sciences.

“We are thrilled to have this opportunity to build upon the tremendous success that the Missouri Eating Disorders Council — the first council of its kind in the nation — has had in terms of offering digital screening and prevention and intervention programs for adults in Missouri, as well as training providers in evidence-based treatment approaches for eating disorders,” Fitzsimmons-Craft said. 

The award is part of an HHS Office on Women’s Health initiative to improve early detection and prevention of eating disorders in adolescent girls. It is one of just two such grants the office awards.

During the pandemic, the rate of eating disorders increased, but new pressures arose after lockdown restrictions eased.

“The social media messages teenage girls were exposed to were about losing the ‘COVID-15,’ or that gaining weight was some sort of failure in the first place,” Wilfley said.

About 10% of people in the United States will be affected by an eating disorder in their lifetime, but 80% of those affected never receive treatment. Fitzsimmons-Craft and Wilfley will use the grant to improve access to treatment by expanding Body U to adolescents.

Originally designed for adults, the program is based on decades of research and comprises multiple evidence-based components, including online eating disorders screening, digital self-help programs for adolescents with differing risks of developing an eating disorder, referrals to providers trained by the Missouri Eating Disorders Council for those screening positive for anorexia nervosa, and more.

The digital programs also will address the social isolation and loneliness that increased for many adolescent girls during the pandemic, contributing to eating disorders symptoms. Over the course of the grant, Body U will be implemented in at least 10 public school districts in Missouri, reaching at least 2,000 girls.

“I have 15-year-old twin daughters,” Wilfley said. As a mother, I see the day-to-day pressure young women are under. I am grateful to be able to support them with the potential to scale this program across the state.”

Additional statewide partners include the Missouri Department of Mental Health, the Missouri Child Psychiatry Access Project, the Missouri Behavioral Health Council, the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, the Missouri Coordinated School Health Coalition and the Missouri Association for School Nurses.

“We look forward to being a strategic partner in implementing this life-saving program,” said Annie Seal, chair of the Missouri Eating Disorders Council. “This grant will allow us to expand our mission to raise awareness and increase access to treatment for eating disorders, particularly among the most vulnerable and underserved population — adolescent girls living in rural Missouri.”