HAWLEY, WAYNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — 28 million Americans struggle with an eating disorder, including young children and adolescents. The lack of uncertainty during the pandemic sparked an increase in eating disorders locally, and nationwide.

Eyewitness News examines the quest to be thin and how to spot the signs of an eating disorder.

Over the course of the pandemic, the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline reported a 40 percent increase in call volume.

Eating disorders are serious, life-threatening, mental illnesses that claim a life every 52 minutes.

They can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or background. The perceived pressures to be thin almost cost one local woman her life.

“This little voice in my head says the more you’re thin, the more people will like you,” said 26-year-old Julia Hessling of Hawley, Wayne County.

Hessling suffers from anorexia nervosa and body dysmorphic disorder. Her extreme behaviors started when she was 12 years old.

At one point, Julia weighed just 65 pounds, barely surviving on 200 calories a day, all while over-exercising up to 4 hours daily.

“I had two weeks left to live, that’s what people don’t understand, it’s not a fad or a choice, it’s a mental illness,” Hessling explained.

Julia was born with a cleft lip and pallet and had to endure a dozen surgeries throughout her lifetime, which left her feeling insecure and eager to succeed in school sports.

“I feel that made me feel different and wanting to be perfect in other ways so I brought it to food. I wanted to be the fastest, the strongest, the one who wins the most points,” Hessling continued.

Eating disorders are illnesses in which people experience severe disturbances in their eating behaviors.

There are various types of eating disorders, the most common being anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorder.

Kate Conklin is a registered dietitian and is seeing an increase in patients suffering from eating disorders.

“With COVID, the uncertainty of when things were going to get back to normal and their safety, eating disorders grew at an alarming rate. We’re seeing now more than ever kids as young as 5 and 6, my youngest client is 6,” Conklin stated.

Eating disorders can be triggered by feelings of fear, genetics, and environmental factors. One cause of eating disorders is exposure is social media promoting idealistic bikini bodies and thinness.

“It was always focused on how they looked never just about them and that’s just engrained in young girls’ minds,” Hessling commented.

According to the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, eating disorders are among the deadliest mental illnesses, second only to opioid overdoses.

“A sudden interest in health and fitness and poor body image as well something I tell parents to look for,” Conklin said.

Other warning signs are disinterest in foods previously enjoyed, trips to the bathroom right after a meal, becoming isolated, and avoiding social settings.

As for Julia, she has regained a lot of the weight she lost with the help of a medical team and now makes it her mission to speak publicly about her struggle to overcome her eating disorders and educate others who grapple with the same issues.

If you need help overcoming an eating disorder, reach out to someone you trust, and contact The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders Helpline at 1-888-375-7767. No one is immune.