Surge in Eating Disorders and Self-Harm Among Teen Girls Post-COVID

New Research Reveals A recent UK study indicates a significant increase in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls, aligning with similar findings across Europe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been linked to a substantial rise in eating disorders and self-harm cases among teenage girls in the United Kingdom.

An analysis of millions of UK general practice records revealed that, since March 2020, eating disorders in girls aged 13-16 were 42.4% higher than expected, while those aged 17-19 experienced a 32% increase. Self-harm incidents among 13-16-year-old girls were 38.4% higher than anticipated, with no increase observed in other age groups.

This research, conducted by the University of Manchester, Keele University, University of Exeter, and the McPin Foundation, was published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal.

Rise in Cases More Pronounced in Affluent Areas

Dr. Pearl Mok, the lead author and research fellow at the University of Manchester, stated that the reasons for the increase in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes among teenage girls during the pandemic are likely multifaceted. Factors may include social isolation, anxiety from changing routines, disrupted education, unhealthy social media influences, and heightened clinical awareness.

The study also discovered that the rise in eating disorders and self-harm cases was more prominent in less economically deprived areas, which Mok attributed to potential differences in service provision and challenges in accessing clinical care.

The research utilized a database of anonymized health records from nine million individuals aged 10 to 24 years old, spanning 2010 to 2022. No increase in rates of eating disorders or self-harm episodes was found among males.

Dr. Sruti Garg, co-investigator and child and adolescent psychiatrist from the University of Manchester, emphasized the urgent need to enhance early access to services and timely intervention.

European Findings Mirror UK Results

Similar increases in eating disorders have been reported in European countries such as Italy, France, and Belgium.

The Italian Society of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry reported a 30% increase in eating disorder cases during the pandemic, particularly among young people. The society cited factors such as isolation, lockdowns, school closures, and the cancellation of social initiatives as contributing factors.

A February 2022 study published in the French journal Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism also revealed a concerning rise in eating disorders among young students during the pandemic, with incidence doubling between 2009 and 2021. The authors called for urgent initiatives to strengthen early detection and targeted interventions in this high-risk population.

Additionally, a 2022 European health report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that the proportion of 18 to 29-year-olds in Belgium with eating disorder symptoms was nearly 40% higher in March 2021 than in 2018. According to the OECD, although young people’s mental health has generally improved in Europe as the pandemic situation has improved, symptoms of anxiety and depression remain twice as high as pre-pandemic levels in some countries.

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