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New research shows ‘large rise’ post-COVID in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls

Eating disorders and self harm have increased among teenage girls in the UK.
Eating disorders and self harm have increased among teenage girls in the UK. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Lauren Chadwick
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A UK analysis of health records found a large rise in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls, echoing similar findings in other European countries.

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Researchers have observed a large rise in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls in the United Kingdom since the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since March 2020, eating disorders were 42.4 per cent “higher than what would have been expected” for girls aged 13-16 and 32 per cent higher for those aged 17-19, an analysis of millions of UK general practice records showed.

Self-harm episodes were 38.4 per cent higher than expected for teenage girls aged 13-16, while there was no increase for girls in other age groups.

The findings were published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal by the University of Manchester, Keele University, University of Exeter, and mental health research charity the McPin Foundation.

Increase of cases in more affluent areas

“The reasons for the increase in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls during the pandemic are likely to be complex,” Dr Pearl Mok, the lead author and a research fellow from the University of Manchester, said in a statement.

She added that they “could be due to a mixture of issues such as social isolation, anxiety resulting from changing routines, disruption in education, unhealthy social media influences, and increased clinical awareness”.

The researchers also found that the increase in eating disorders and self-harm episodes was larger in less deprived communities which, Mok said, could reflect “differences in service provision and challenges in accessing clinical care”.

The researchers used a database of anonymised health records of nine million young people aged 10 to 24 years old between 2010 and 2022 to carry out the study.

They found no increase in rates of eating disorders or self-harm episodes for males.

“The staggering rise in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes among teenage females highlights an urgent need to improve early access to services and for timely intervention,” added Dr Sruti Garg, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and co-investigator from the University of Manchester.

Research echoes previous European findings

The UK study echoes previous findings in European countries such as Italy France, and Belgium.

According to the Italian Society of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry, the incidence of eating disorders in the country increased by 30 per cent due to the pandemic, especially among young people.

Citing figures from the Italian health ministry, the society said in a statement in March that this was due to “isolation, lockdowns, closure of schools, and the cancellation of social initiatives”.

A study published in February 2022 in the French journal Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism also found a concerning increase in eating disorders among young students during the pandemic.

The study showed that between 2009 and 2021, eating disorder incidence among students doubled.

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“These results indicate for the first time a worrying increase in the prevalence of eating disorders among college students at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the study authors said.

“Initiatives to strengthen early detection of eating disorders with targeted interventions in this high-risk student population are urgently needed”.

Another study, meanwhile, found that the share of young people in Belgium aged 18 to 29 with symptoms of an eating disorder was almost 40 per cent higher in March 2021 than in 2018, according to a 2022 European health report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The OECD said that while young people’s mental health had generally improved in Europe as the pandemic situation approved, “the share of young people with symptoms of anxiety and depression remain double that of pre-pandemic levels in some countries”.

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