The number of teenage girls seeking help from their GP for an eating disorder has soared in the two years since the pandemic started, a study has shown.
Analysis of data from more than 9 million GP records showed that since 2020, the rates of eating disorders in young people were 42% higher than would be expected for 13-to-16-year-old girls based on figures from the previous decade.
For girls aged 17 to 19, the research showed rates 32% higher since the pandemic started.
The study also found that rates of self-harm in 13-16-year-old girls was 38% greater than expected.
Reporting the results in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, the team said no increase in rates of eating disorders or self-harm was observed in males.
Earlier this year the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned eating disorder services were being flooded with referrals for children and teenagers.
An already apparent difference in high rates of eating disorders among girls from the most affluent backgrounds has widened further, the researchers noted.
Since March 2020, eating disorder diagnoses for females living in the least deprived communities were 52% higher than expected, compared with 22% higher for those living in the most deprived areas, they said.
Self-harm was previously more common in the most deprived areas but those socioeconomic differences have now narrowed, they said.
Both self-harm and eating disorders, as well as being major health issues, are coping mechanisms that are often indicative of underlying psychological distress, sharing multiple risk factors, the researchers added.
Study lead Dr Pearl Mok from The University of Manchester said: ‘The reasons for the increase in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls during the pandemic are likely to be complex and could be due to a mixture of issues such as social isolation, anxiety resulting from changing routines, disruption in education, unhealthy social media influences, and increased clinical awareness.
‘Our study is large, but episodes of self-harm that were not treated by health services were not captured in our data, so the rise in self-harm incidence might have been even greater than we observed.
She added that the greater rise in eating disorders and self-harm seen in the least deprived areas may reflect differences in service provision and the ability to access clinical care.
Co-author Professor Carolyn Chew-Graham, a GP and professor of general practice research at Keele University said early identification of mental health difficulties in children and young people by primary care clinicians is extremely important to facilitate timely access to treatments.
But she added: ‘Sufficient support, however, from GPs and mental health services needs to be available to manage those presenting.
‘Given the current pressures on the NHS, in both primary and specialist care, our study emphasises the need for sufficient capacity in mental health services to meet growing demand.’
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at eating disorder charity Beat, said the figures were shocking but sadly not surprising as during the height of the pandemic demand for their helpline services spiked by 300% and remains high now.
‘We also know that the NHS is treating more children and young people than ever before, with healthcare professionals under huge amounts of strain.’
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: ‘We recognise the devastating impact eating disorders can have on an individual and family’s life, which is why we’re investing an additional £2.3bn a year in NHS mental health services by March 2024, so more adults, children and young people in England can receive appropriate treatment.’