Six in 10 older teens in England have ‘possible eating problems’ | Eating disorders

Huge numbers of older teenagers and young adults have a problematic relationship with food, a major new survey of young people’s mental health has found.

Six in ten (60%) 17- to 19-year-olds in England have “possible problems with eating”, according to research undertaken by NHS Digital, the health service’s statistical body.

An even higher proportion of those aged 20 to 23 – 62.3% – display the same behaviours. Many fewer 11- to 16-year-olds – one in eight (12.9%) – are affected, however.

“Possible problems with eating” include feeling shame about how much they eat, deliberately making themselves vomit or being anxious about their appearance. It involves behaviour that is less serious than having an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia.

The problem is much more common among girls and young women than their male peers. For example, it was found in 17.8% of girls but only 8.1% of boys aged 11 to 16.

However, a staggering three-quarters (75.9%) of girls and young women aged 17 to 19 told researchers that they had experienced such feelings or behaviours, as had almost half – 45.5% – of boys and young men that age.

“It’s deeply concerning that so many children and young people are reporting possible eating problems,” said Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, the eating disorders charity.

He said: “The thoughts and behaviours highlighted by the NHS Digital survey, such as feeling ashamed about eating and worried about body image, can signify early signs of an eating disorder.”

Recent years have seen what Quinn called an “alarming” rise in such issues among teenagers and young people. As recently as 2017, the prevalence was 44% among 17- to 19-year-olds, as opposed to 60% now.

Genetics, personality traits such as perfectionism, negative body image, low self-esteem and factors such as grief, abuse or stress can also help trigger the onset of “disordered eating”, Quinn added.

Stress and anxiety induced by the Covid pandemic – for instance young people’s inability to go to school, concern about relatives’ health or isolation from their friends – has also has “a huge impact” on their mental health and risk of developing an eating disorder, he said.

NHS Digital’s report – the mental health of children and young people in England 2022 – was based on research among 2,866 children and young people aged between seven and 24. It also found that:

  • One in four 17- to 19-year-olds have a probable mental disorder – up from one in 10 in 2017 and one in six last year.

  • Children and young people from households facing financial difficulties, such as those who cannot afford food, are much more likely to suffer from mental health problems.

  • One in eight 11- to 16-year-olds, and 29.4% of those that age with a mental health disorder such as anxiety or depression, have been bullied online.

  • One in six 17- to 24-year-olds have tried to harm themselves.

The survey was carried out earlier this year by the Office for National Statistics, the National Institute of Social and Economic Research and Cambridge and Exeter universities.

“These figures lay bare the horrifying scale of mental health issues affecting children and young people,” said Amy Dicks, policy and impact manager at The Children’s Society charity.

Brian Dow, the deputy chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, warned that the large numbers of young people suffering mental distress showed that “we’re heading into a public health crisis that could take decades to recover from and ripple through generations to come”.

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