News Release

THE LANCET CHILD & ADOLESCENT HEALTH: Prolonged rise in eating disorders and self-harm among adolescent girls in the UK following the COVID-19 pandemic, best evidence to date suggests

Peer-Reviewed Publication

The Lancet

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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