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Sharp rise in teenage eating disorders during Covid

Posted on the 4th July 2023

Eating Disorders Covid Pandemic

Records have shown a sharp rise in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While eating disorders and self-harm had been rising among children and young people for a number of years, instances of both ‘increased substantially’ between 2020 and 2022, according to new research by the University of Manchester, University of Exeter, and Keele University.

The analysis looked at nine million patient records belonging to young people aged between 10 and 24, from nearly 2,000 GP practices across the UK.

Over the first two years of the coronavirus pandemic, 3,862 diagnoses of eating disorders were made among 13-16-year-olds – a 42 per cent increase from the expected figure of 2,700 cases.

In the same age group, 9,174 cases of self-harm were recorded by GPs – a 38 per cent jump from the 6,631 predicted cases.

GP records show a particular rise in eating disorders among girls living in the wealthiest parts of the UK. Since March 2020, 22 per cent of reported eating disorders occurred in the most deprived areas, with 52 per cent occurring in the least deprived areas with better GP access.

Eating disorders also rose significantly among 17-19-year olds.

While the study, published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, found no concrete sign of increased rates of eating disorders among young men and boys, charities say males remain at a higher risk for suicide, with mental health issues manifesting in different ways among different genders.

The study’s authors have suggested that prolonged access to social media, reduced face-to-face interaction, and increased preoccupation with body image may have led to reduced self-esteem and psychological distress, particularly among young girls.

The researchers have also posited that a perceived lack of control over teenagers’ lives could have served as a behavioural trigger, as could media coverage focusing on food availability and linking higher weights to an increased risk for COVID.

A spokesperson from the UK’s eating disorder charity, BEAT, described the figures as ‘shocking but sadly not surpirsing’, and criticised the ‘postcode lottery’ which links socioeconomic backgrounds with healthcare access. ‘We also know that the NHS is treating more children and young people than ever before, with healthcare professionals under huge amounts of strain.’

While the UK government has said it will invest an additional £54 million a year in community eating disorder services for children and young people, the charity YoungMinds has called for more to be done to address the ‘rapidly escalating mental health crisis for young people’.

Related: Pandemic has physically altered teenagers’ brains

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