More than half of older teenagers and young adults in England have a problematic relationship with food, a major survey of young people’s mental health has found.
Six in ten (60%) 17- to 19-year-olds 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. However, many fewer 11- to 16-year-olds – one in eight (12.9%) – are affected.
“Possible problems with eating” include an individual 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 problems are more common among girls and young women than their male peers. For example, they were found in 17.8% of girls aged 11 to 16, but only 8.1% of boys the same age.
A staggering three-quarters (75.9%) of girls and young women aged 17 to 19 told researchers they had experienced such feelings or behaviours, as had almost half – 45.5% – of boys and young men that age.
Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at Beat, the eating disorders charity, said: “It’s deeply concerning that so many children and young people are reporting possible eating problems.
He added: “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.”
In recent years there has been 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 could also trigger “disordered eating”, he said.
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 friends – had also had “a huge impact” on their mental health and risk of developing an eating disorder, he said.
NHS Digital’s report – 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 have 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 Centre for Social Research, and Cambridge and Exeter universities.
Amy Dicks, the policy and impact manager at the Children’s Society charity, said: “These figures lay bare the horrifying scale of mental health issues affecting children and young people.”
Brian Dow, the deputy chief executive of Rethink Mental Illness, said the large numbers of young people suffering mental distress showed “we’re heading into a public health crisis that could take decades to recover from and ripple through generations to come”.
• This article was amended on 9 December 2022. It was the National Centre for Social Research, not the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, that was involved in carrying out the survey.
• In the UK, Beat can be contacted on 0808-801-0677. In the US, the National Eating Disorders Association is on 800-931-2237. In Australia, the Butterfly Foundation is at 1800 33 4673. Other international helplines can be found at Eating Disorder Hope