Eating disorders among young girls soared during the pandemic, according to new research.
The rate of diagnoses in 13 to 16-year-olds rose by 42 percent, say scientists. Cases of self-harm also went up by 38 percent in the same two-year period.
The phenomenon was also identified in 17 to 19-year-olds – but to a lesser degree, adding to evidence lockdowns were linked with worsening mental health of adolescents.
Lead author Alex Trafford, a Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester, said: “Incidence of primary care-recorded eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes have substantially increased among teenage girls in the UK in the two years since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Although the causes are uncertain, early identification of mental health difficulties in all young people and timely access to treatments is crucial to prevent exacerbations of existing conditions.
“Sufficient access to and support from general practitioners and mental health services should be made available to meet the needs of the growing number of young people presenting to services.”
Isolation, lack of structure, and heightened anxiety are three possible triggers.
Adolescents faced pressure on social media about not gaining weight in lockdown.
Teens with eating disorders are at higher risk for suicide than the general population – putting them among the most deadly mental health illnesses.
Body dissatisfaction and desire for weight loss are key contributors. Conditions include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating.
Research suggests that up to 10 percent of people will develop an eating disorder in their lifetime.
A recent study estimated that one in five teens might struggle with disordered eating behaviors.
Trafford said: “Self-harm and eating disorders are coping mechanisms that often indicate underlying psychological distress.
“Both forms of psychopathology commonly have onset during adolescence or early adulthood and are more prevalent among girls than boys.
“These psycho-pathologies share several risk factors, including experience of traumatic events and particular psychological traits and cognitive styles.”
His team analyzed data from 1,881 general practices across the UK, including more than nine million males and females aged 10 to 24 years.
Trafford said: “We found observed incidence of eating disorder diagnoses in girls was substantially higher than expected from antecedent trends.
“This increase in incidence was attributable to an increase in the number of cases among adolescents aged 13–16 years and, to a lesser extent, those aged 17–19 years.
“The observed incidence of self-harm among adolescent girls aged 13–16 years was also higher than expected.”
Using data from 2010–2020, the study predicted the expected rates of eating disorders and self-harm, had the pandemic not occurred, from March 2020 to March 2022. The actual rates of documented diagnoses during the pandemic were then compared with the projected rates.
Between March 2020, and March 2022, in 13–16-year-old girls, there were 3,862 observed eating disorder cases compared with 2,713 projected if the pandemic had not occurred.
In the same cohort, there were 9,174 observed cases of self-harm compared with 6,631 projected.
The study also provides novel insight into how the pandemic affected pre-existing socioeconomic differences in the rates of eating disorders and self-harm.
During the pandemic, the higher-than-expected rates of eating disorders and self-harm in girls aged 13–16 years were largely due to increases within less deprived communities.
The authors highlight the need for further research into the reasons for these findings.
Trafford said: “The apparent increase in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls is a long-term consequence of the pandemic that remains to be addressed.
The researchers call for improved measures around early identification of mental health difficulties, timely access to treatments, scaling up of services, and ongoing support from GPs and mental health services, to reduce the potential of ongoing issues into adulthood.
Trafford added: “Although incident rate increases were not observed among boys, their difficulties might manifest in other disorders.”
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
Edited by Saba Fatima and Asad Ali
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