Health & Lifestyle

Eating disorders and self-harming rates soar 42% since start of pandemic, study finds 

Covid’s collateral effect on teenage girls: Eating disorders and self-harming rates soar 42% since start of pandemic, study finds

  • Experts believe social isolation and anxiety are among factors to blame 
  • Eating disorders were 42 per cent higher for girls aged 13-16

Eating disorders and self-harming among teenage girls has soared in the last three years, new research shows.

The number of 13-to-16-year-olds with conditions such as bulimia and anorexia is now 42 per cent higher than in March 2020, with rates even higher among affluent neighbourhoods.

Meanwhile, those self-harming have also risen by a third (32 per cent) for the same period, according to analysis of GP records.

Experts believe factors including social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disruption to education and unhealthy social media influences are likely to blame.

Researchers from the University of Manchester, Keele University, University of Exeter and mental health research charity The McPin Foundation looked at anonymised GP health records of over nine million patients from 1,881 general practices in the UK.

Experts believe factors including social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disruption to education and unhealthy social media influences are likely to blame

Experts believe factors including social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disruption to education and unhealthy social media influences are likely to blame

Experts believe factors including social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disruption to education and unhealthy social media influences are likely to blame

Experts believe factors including social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disruption to education and unhealthy social media influences are likely to blame

Since the pandemic hit, they found eating disorders were 42 per cent higher than would be expected for teenage girls aged 13-16, and 32 per cent higher for those aged 17-19.

No similar rise in boys was seen, according to the findings published in the Lancet Child And Adolescent Health journal.

Cases of self-harm were 38 per cent higher than expected among girls aged 13 to 16 while no increases were observed among boys or girls of other ages.

However, charity Beat said it had seen ‘significant increases’ in contacts from young men.

The charity also raised concerns over inequitable access to care for patients, with children from wealthier backgrounds more likely to be diagnosed.

Eating disorder diagnoses have traditionally been more common among girls from affluent backgrounds, with the gap widening following Covid.

Girls in wealthy communities have seen a 52 per cent higher rate of compared to 22 per cent from poorer backgrounds.

Dr Pearl Mok, from the University of Manchester and lead author, said the true figures were likely to be higher still, with many episodes going unreported.

He said: ‘The reasons for the increase in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls during the pandemic are likely to be complex and 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.

‘Our study is large but episodes of self-harm that were not treated by health services were not captured in our data, so the rise in self-harm incidence might have been even greater than we observed.’

Tom Quinn, of eating disorder charity Beat, said: ‘These figures are shocking but sadly not surprising; during the height of the pandemic we saw demand for our helpline services spike by 300 per cent and it is still remaining high.

‘We also know that the NHS is treating more children and young people than ever before, with healthcare professionals under huge amounts of strain.

‘It is surprising that there has been no increase in diagnoses in young men, as we have seen significant increases in contact and the latest NHS data shows more demand in both young men and women.’

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