Eating disorders among young rise 15-fold since before pandemic

One in every eight 17- to 19-year-olds now has an eating disorder, up from less than one in 100 in 2017
One in every eight 17- to 19-year-olds now has an eating disorder, up from less than one in 100 in 2017 - Image Source/Getty Images

Eating disorders among young people have jumped more than 15-fold since before the pandemic, NHS data show.

One in every eight 17- to 19-year-olds now has an eating disorder, up from less than one in 100 in 2017, according to analysis.

Experts said it was no longer a “rare mental illness” and “the impact of the pandemic cannot be understated”.

Eating disorders are a mental health condition where a person uses the control of food to cope with feelings and can include, but are not limited to, anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder.

The proportion of older teenagers with some form of clinical eating disorder rose from 0.8 per cent in 2017 to 12.5 per cent in 2023.

It is the first time in six years that the NHS survey data include positive diagnoses for eating disorders rather than more simplistic “probable” measures.

Among girls aged 17 to 19, the rate rises to more than one in five, at 20.8 per cent, while among boys it was 5.1 per cent.

Similar if less drastic trends were seen among children aged 11 to 16 years old.

The proportion with an eating disorder rose five-fold over the six years, from 0.5 per cent in 2017 to 2.6 per cent in 2023.

Similarly, girls were four times more likely to suffer from an eating disorder than boys.

‘Failed by the system’

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, an eating disorder charity, called the figures “devastating” and said “every day we hear from those who have been failed by the system”.

He said: “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.

“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.”

The NHS says its survey is “England’s best data source for trends in children and young people’s mental health” and was carried out by the Office for National Statistics, National Centre for Social Research, University of Cambridge and University of Exeter.

The 2023 survey involved 2370 young people who have been followed since 2017.

Those classified as having an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa or bulimia nervosa were clinically diagnosed using the international classification of disease version 10 (ICD-10).

‘Unprecedented pressures’

Claire Murdoch, NHS mental health director, said: “The report shows the continued unprecedented pressures faced by young people and reflects the increased demand for NHS children’s mental health services.

“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.

“NHS staff are working harder than ever to meet the increased demand and we have fast-tracked mental health support for millions of pupils in schools and colleges.

“It is vital that any child or young person struggling, or their family, reaches out for help so they can get the care they need.”

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