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Eating disorders soar amongst young girls according to experts

12 months ago

Eating disorders soar amongst young girls according to experts
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Experts say there has been a significant rise in the number of teenage girls diagnosed with eating disorders in recent years.

There is also a warning about an increase in rates of self-harm among teenage girls.

With more girls diagnosed in wealthier neighbourhoods, eating disorder experts said there could be a “postcode lottery of care”, with those in more deprived communities unable to access the support they need.

The new study, published in the Lancet Child And Adolescent Health journal, saw experts examine UK GP records for children and young people aged 10 to 24 between 2010 and 2024.

The 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.

Since March 2020, when the pandemic hit, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia were 42% higher than would be expected for teenage girls aged 13-16, and 32% higher for those aged 17-19, they found.

The number of cases of self-harm was 38% higher than expected among girls aged 13 to 16.

No increase in self-harm was observed among boys or girls of other ages.

The researchers said they did not identify a rise in reported eating disorders among boys.

But the charity Beat said it had seen “significant increases” in contacts from young men.

And it said the overall figures were “not surprising” after the charity had a 300% increase in calls to its helpline during the pandemic.

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

Even before Covid, a diagnosis of an eating disorder was more common among girls from affluent backgrounds.

But after the crisis, the gap rose even further with those in wealthy communities seeing a 52% higher rate of diagnosis compared to previous trends, while those from poorer backgrounds had a 22% rise in cases.

Lead author Dr Pearl Mok, from the University of Manchester, 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. However, it is also possible that cases of self-harm not coming to the attention of services may have exhibited a different pattern.

“We found that the increase in eating disorders and self-harm was greater in less deprived than in more deprived areas. This may reflect differences in service provision and challenges in accessing clinical care, rather than greater increases in risks for self-harm and eating disorders during the pandemic amongst those living in the least than in the most deprived communities.”

Commenting on the study, Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at 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% 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.

“This much-needed research has also raised some pertinent questions around care inequality.

“The rise in diagnoses in less deprived areas cannot be attributed to any one cause, but in general people in those areas will have easier access to primary care, making it more likely that eating disorders will be spotted earlier. We know there is still a postcode lottery and these gaps must be addressed so that everyone can get the help they need as quickly as possible.”

Gemma Byrne, policy and campaigns manager at mental health charity Mind, said:

“It is deeply concerning to see such an increase in the number of young women experiencing eating disorders, and facing a postcode lottery when it comes to treatment.

“Across the board, from community to acute care, the services are struggling to keep pace with a nation in the grip of a mental health crisis.

“Young people with mental health problems are bearing the brunt of years of under-investment.

“The mental health care system needs a complete overhaul to deal with the level of demand services are facing.”

Find out more about BEAT here.

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