Renew Counselling and Training

The silent crisis: the rise in diagnoses of eating disorders and self-harm

Nikki Schuster, CEO

A combined study published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health last week reported a large rise in eating disorder diagnoses and self-harm episodes amongst teenage girls in the UK in the years since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The study, carried out by the University of Manchester, Keele University, University of Exeter, and mental health research charity The McPin Foundation, pulls together data from UK GP records of young people aged 10 to 24 years between 2010 and 2022.

Since March 2020, records from General Practices show that eating disorders were 42% higher than would be expected based on previous trends for females aged 13-16, and 32% higher for those aged 17-19. The increase in incidences of self-harm was also greatest among females aged 13-16, with the number 38% greater than expected. 

These findings resonate deeply with us, as we witness the profound impact of eating disorders and self-harm on the young people that we support. It is vital that we understand the complexities behind these issues and the critical role that counselling charities like Renew play in providing support and healing. Eating disorders and self-harm can have far reaching impacts on young people’s lives. The longer it goes on, the more entrenched it becomes. We know the earlier the illness is treated, the more beneficial to the individual. 

Responding to this sharp increase urgently is key. 

Complex issues 

Eating disorders and self-harm are not merely surface-level struggles. The study acknowledges that social isolation, anxiety resulting from changing routines, disruptions in education and unhealthy social media influences may contribute to this rise. 

Both eating disorders and self-harm are complex manifestations of underlying psychological distress, coping mechanisms born from a convergence of factors. While it is tempting to simplify the causes and attribute them solely to societal pressures and body image concerns, we must recognise the multidimensional nature of these challenges. 

The impact of the pandemic 

The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted lives in unimaginable ways, particularly for our young people. It has amplified stress, created uncertainty, and magnified feelings of isolation. Adolescence is a period of growth, self-discovery, and forming connections, but the pandemic disrupted these vital processes. The loss of routine, limited social interactions, and economic hardships have taken a toll on mental wellbeing. It is in these moments of vulnerability that eating disorders and self-harm can emerge as maladaptive coping mechanisms. 

Our commitment 

As an organisation dedicated to providing support and guidance to individuals facing eating disorders and self-harm, we are acutely aware of the urgent need to address this crisis. We offer a safe space where individuals can embark on a journey of healing, supported by compassionate counsellors who understand the intricate layers of their struggles. Our counsellors are trained to empower individuals, helping them unravel the underlying distress, build resilience, and cultivate a healthier relationship with themselves. 

The findings of the study demand a collective response. We cannot stand idle in the face of crisis. I believe that there are four key actions that must be taken in order to address these rising figures: 

  • We must advocate for increased funding and resources to strengthen mental health services. Timely intervention and access to professional support are crucial in preventing the escalation of these struggles. 
  • Comprehensive mental health education programmes in schools are paramount. By equipping young people with knowledge, coping skills, and resilience-building techniques, we can empower them to seek help and support early on. 
  • While the study found that wealthier teenage girls were more likely to be diagnosed in recent years, we know from experience that these issues affects young people from all walks of life. We must address the socioeconomic disparities that exacerbate the challenges faced by individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. Equal access to mental health services must be a priority, bridging the gap in service provision and ensuring that support is available to all who need it. 
  • Finally, collaboration is key. By fostering partnerships among mental health organisations, the NHS, schools, and community support networks, we can create a robust support system that amplifies our collective impact. 

The rise in eating disorders and self-harm among teenage girls demands our commitment to change. As a charity dedicated to empowering people, we remain steadfast in our mission to provide support, hope, and healing. By understanding the complexities behind these struggles and working together, we can nurture resilience, empower young minds, and pave the way for a future where mental wellbeing takes centre stage. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with self-harm or an eating disorder, we are here to help. Our team of counsellors is available to provide support and guidance. You can reach out to us here to find out more. 

Nikki Schuster
Chief Executive