The rate of eating disorder diagnoses among girls aged 13–16-years-old in the UK during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic (from March 2020–March 2022) was 42% higher than the expected rate based on previous trends, suggests a study published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health journal. The rate of self-harm diagnoses in the same cohort was 38% higher than the expected rate for the two-year period.
As the largest and most targeted nationwide study in the adolescent population, and the first to cover two years of the pandemic, these findings are the best available evidence on eating disorder and self-harm diagnoses among young people in the UK since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The researchers analysed the health records of more than 9 million young patients (male and female, ages 10–24 years) from more than 1,800 general practices across the UK to assess diagnosis rates at the first point of care. 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, the rate of eating disorder diagnoses was 42% higher than expected, with 3,862 observed cases compared with 2,713 projected cases if the pandemic had not occurred. In the same cohort, the rate of self-harm diagnoses was 38% higher than expected, with 9,174 observed cases compared with 6,631 projected cases.
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, although the authors highlight the need for further research into the reasons for these findings.
The authors argue 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. They 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.
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The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health
Method of Research
Subject of Research
Temporal trends in eating disorder and self-harm incidence rates among adolescents and young adults in the UK in the 2 years since onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: a populationbased study
Article Publication Date
CAC-G has received grants from the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), outside the submitted work. CAC-G was also a member of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guideline development group for depression (guideline update, published 2022). NK reports grants and personal fees from the DHSC, NIHR, NICE, National Health Service (NHS) England, and the Healthcare Quality and Improvement Partnership, outside the submitted work. NK is also a member of the advisory group for the national suicide prevention strategy in England; chaired the NICE guideline development group for the NICE depression in adults guideline; was a topic expert member for the NICE suicide prevention guideline; and chaired the guideline development group for the NICE guidelines on the long-term management of self-harm and was a topic advisor on the 2022 NICE guideline on self-harm. All other authors declare no competing interests.