June 18, 2024

Vita Nectar

Health is the main investment in life

Alarming figures reveal eating disorders have soared 15-fold since before Covid: One in eight teens now suffer from likes of bulimia or anorexia

5 min read

Eating disorders among young people have soared more than 15-fold in England since before the pandemic, alarming new figures reveal.

One in eight 17 to 19-year-olds now suffers from the likes of bulimia, anorexia or bingeing – up from fewer than one in 100 in 2017.

The figures are particularly stark among women, with more than one in five in this age group affected.

Experts last night said the numbers show eating disorders are no longer ‘rare’, as they blamed social media, Covid lockdowns and the rising cost of living for fuelling a mental health crisis.

They also warned the NHS and schools are failing to cope with the growing demand for care, which risks harming patients’ and pupils’ future life chances.

One in eight 17 to 19-year-olds now suffers from the likes of bulimia, anorexia or bingeing - up from fewer than one in 100 in 2017, new figures show (stock image)

One in eight 17 to 19-year-olds now suffers from the likes of bulimia, anorexia or bingeing – up from fewer than one in 100 in 2017, new figures show (stock image)

The new Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2023 report, published by NHS England, shows 12.5 per cent of 17 to 19-year-olds has an eating disorder, up from 0.8 per cent in 2017.

Rates among women in this age group have risen from 1.6 per cent to 20.8 per cent while rates for men of the same age increased from 0.0 per cent to 5.1 per cent.

This year’s survey also found eating disorders affect 5.9 per cent of 20 to 25-year-olds and 2.6 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds, typically in secondary school.

This latter figure is up from 0.5 per cent in 2017, when the data was last collected, and rates this year are four times higher in girls (4.3 per cent) than boys (1.0 per cent).

The survey of 2,370 people aged eight to 25 was conducted by the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, University of Cambridge and University of Exeter, and is considered England’s best data source for trends in young people’s mental health.

Participants completed questionnaires that allowed researchers to clinically diagnose them with an eating disorder, which is characterised by disturbances in eating behaviours, appetite or food intake.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, the eating disorder charity, said: ‘These figures have brought into sharp focus the devastating scale of eating disorders in children and young people in England.

‘Every day we hear from those who have been failed by the system, allowed to fall through the cracks and become even more unwell – and now urgent action is needed.

‘Eating disorders are often thought to be rare mental illnesses, but this new data clearly shows that they are far more common than most people realise.

‘Now is the time for support for those affected – including adults – to be placed at the forefront of mental health policy, and most urgently, prioritised for dedicated funding.

‘There will never be a simple reason as to why rates have gone up so dramatically, but the impact of the pandemic cannot be understated.

‘During lockdown many young people went without social interaction for weeks or months, with vital safeguards such as teachers and school nurses unable to spot the earliest signs.

‘In addition, spending more time viewing harmful content on social media could have exacerbated symptoms in those already unwell or vulnerable.’

Survey responses from parents, children and young people were also used to estimate the likelihood that a child might have a mental disorder of any type. This was classified as either ‘unlikely’, ‘possible’ or ‘probable’.

It found 20.3 per cent of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder in 2023.

Among 17 to 19-year-olds, the proportion was 23.3 per cent, while in 20 to 25-year-olds it was 21.7 per cent.

After a rise in rates of probable mental disorders between 2017 and 2020, prevalence continued at similar levels in all age groups between 2022 and 2023.

Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, of the University of Exeter and academic consultant on the study, said: ‘From the study, we can’t tell exactly why we’ve seen a rise in eating disorders or whether social media has played a role, but we do know that online communities on social media platforms can be helpful for young people and can provide support and advice.

‘However, we also think that increased exposure to negative online environments can be harmful in terms of reinforcing disordered behaviours around eating, exercise, and unrealistic body images.

‘It’s important for young people to think carefully about how using social media is affecting their eating behaviours and if they are worried to seek help and advice from a trusted source such as Beat, the eating disorders charity.’

Jo Holmes, children, young people and families lead at the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, said: ‘The figures should act as a wake-up call to the government that more investment is desperately needed in services such as school and community-based counselling services in England.

‘Family issues, the cost of living, exams, bullying, pressures of social media, self-worth, and the effects of the pandemic are just some of the issues affecting children and young people right now.’

NHS England has rolled out 398 mental health support teams within schools and colleges to provide early support to young people with mild to moderate mental health issues.

A further 200 teams are currently in training and due to become operational by spring 2025, which would expand coverage to over 50 per cent of the country’s students, but charities fear these will be ‘spread too thinly’.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, which represents NHS trusts, said: ‘Getting help and support to children and young people as soon as possible is critical for their future life chances, wellbeing and social development – whether that’s in mental health, hospital or community settings.

‘Far too many youngsters are stuck in the queue for diagnosis and the right support.

‘We need urgent cross-government action to get a grip on a persistent crisis.

‘With almost 1.9million people in England on the waiting list for mental health help and demand growing, NHS trusts are very worried about so many people, particularly children and young people, not getting the support and treatment they need.’

Claire Murdoch, director of mental health at NHS England, said: ‘The NHS is providing support for more children and young people than ever before.

‘We have already supported over 700,000 children and young people with their mental health this year and also seen a 47 per cent increase in young people being treated for eating disorders compared to pre-pandemic.’

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