In an era where mental health challenges among adolescents are becoming increasingly prevalent, a new study offers hope through digital intervention. Conducted by a team of researchers from Bend Health, the study reveals significant improvements in disordered eating behaviors among adolescents participating in a collaborative care digital mental health intervention (DMHI). The findings were published in the journal JMIR Formative Research.
Disordered eating behaviours, a precursor to eating disorders, have been on the rise among adolescents. These behaviours include a preoccupation with body image, unhealthy eating patterns, and excessive concern about weight.
Darian Lawrence-Sidebottom, PhD, a researcher at Bend Health, emphasised the urgency of this issue: “Research shows that early intervention is critical for successful treatment: eating disorders are now impacting younger individuals, with teenagers aged 14 to 18 being the most commonly affected age group in 2022, reversing positions from 2018 when the 19–24 age group had the largest share.”
Given that the peak age for the onset of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia, is between 13 and 18 years, adolescence is a critical period for intervention.
“The COVID-19 pandemic more than doubled eating disorder prevalence for adolescents, worsening an existing critical public health issue and adding an estimated annual economic burden of $70 billion for families and hospitals,” added Lawrence-Sidebottom.
Responding to the need for accessible mental health solutions, the study utilised DMHIs as a scalable alternative to traditional in-person therapies. The intervention, provided by Bend Health, involved web-based coaching and therapy sessions, emphasising a whole-family approach to treatment.
The study’s main objective was to assess the effectiveness of the DMHI in reducing disordered eating behaviours. Participants who completed the SCOFF questionnaire, a tool for evaluating such behaviours, at the start and during their care showed promising results.
Lawrence-Sidebottom highlighted the impact of this intervention: “Our most recent research suggests that members participating in Bend Health, a digital mental health intervention (DMHI), show significant improvements in mental health symptoms, and participation in Bend Health reduces disordered eating behaviours in adolescents.”
A significant decrease in SCOFF scores was observed, especially among adolescents with elevated disordered eating behaviours at baseline. Notably, 61.4% of these adolescents showed improvements over time.
“The new retrospective study found that 61.4% of adolescents with elevated disordered eating behaviours at baseline showed significant improvements in these behaviours after a median of just 2.23 months in care, with longer durations in care associated with larger improvements in disordered eating behaviours,” said Lawrence-Sidebottom.
The study also highlighted a higher prevalence of disordered eating behaviours among females and those with elevated anxiety and depressive symptoms. “Indeed, 95.9% of adolescents with disordered eating behaviours participated in care programmes targeting mental health challenges other than negative body image or eating disorders, predominantly anxiety and depression,” he explained.
These findings highlight the potential of digital mental health interventions in addressing eating disorders and related behaviours in adolescents. The accessibility and scalability of DMHIs make them a valuable resource, especially when traditional in-person treatments are inaccessible due to logistical or financial constraints.
The DMHI approach’s advantage lies in its ability to overcome barriers to treatment. Digital interventions can be accessed from anywhere, reducing the need for travel and addressing issues like long waitlists and shortages of trained personnel. Involving the family in the treatment process also provides a supportive environment for adolescents, enhancing the intervention’s effectiveness.
This study represents a significant advancement in understanding and treating disordered eating behaviours in adolescents. Lawrence-Sidebottom concludes with future plans for Bend Health: “We’re revolutionising treatment through our unique collaborative care model that includes coaches, therapists, and psychiatric providers who work with families to provide comprehensive, personalised care plans. Through measurement-based care, Bend achieves better outcomes, supporting happier and healthier kids and families, with seven peer-reviewed published studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the model and more in the works.”
Leveraging digital technologies, mental health care can become more inclusive and accessible, offering hope to families dealing with these complex challenges.