Diagnosed eating disorders could be 'more likely' at all-girls schools


Pupils attending all-girls schools could be more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, new research suggests.

Girls attending schools with higher proportions of female students, and high proportions of university-educated parents, are more likely to be diagnosed with an eating disorder, according to a team of experts from Oxford University, UCL, the University of Bristol, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.

The study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, examined routinely collected data from Sweden to examine more than 55,000 girls.

Of these, 2.4% of girls were found to have developed an eating disorder during the follow-up period.

Experts noted that rates of eating disorders varied significantly between schools.

A young woman, regardless of her background, was more likely to develop an eating disorder if she attended a school with a higher proportion of girls or a higher proportion of children of highly educated parents.

The authors said that Swedish gender equality laws meant all schools must admit both sexes, but they believed that the findings could be generalised to other countries.

"These results suggest that female students at fee-paying or selective schools are more likely to have a diagnosed eating disorder, particularly if the schools are single sex," they wrote.

Lead author Dr Helen Bould, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Oxford, said: "Eating disorders have an enormous effect on the lives of young people who suffer from them - it is important to understand the risk factors so that we can address them.

"For a long time clinicians in the field have noted that they seem to see more young people with eating disorders from some schools than others, but this is the first empirical evidence that this is the case.

"Unfortunately, this study can't tell us what it is about schools that affects the rate of eating disorders: it might be an unintentional effect of the aspirational culture of some schools that makes eating disorders more likely; it might be that eating disorders are contagious and can spread within a school.

"On the other hand, it could be that some schools are better than others at identifying eating disorders in their students and ensuring they get diagnosed and treated."

A spokeswoman for the eating disorder charity Beat said: "Many of those diagnosed with an eating disorder have a tendency towards perfectionism and competitiveness and are high achievers.

"Schools with a strong academic record can generate a competitive and pressurised environment which may increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

"Teachers and staff in schools and colleges are well placed to spot the early signs of an eating disorder because of their daily contact with young people at the ages of greatest risk.

"Educational establishments can take steps to address eating disorders at several levels with policies and practices in their curricula and with individuals at risk."

A Government spokeswoman said: "Eating disorders can affect both girls and boys and we are investing £150 million on treating these illnesses, backed up by £1.4 billion funding to transform the specialist mental health support available for young people.

"We want all young people to understand the importance of good mental health, feel empowered to support one another and get formal help more quickly if they need it.

"That's why we are investing £1.5 million in schemes to help children develop support networks in schools and working with NHS England to establish single points of contact for schools to make mental health support more joined up and readily available."

The news came as it was announced that experts have created a new online resource for parents of children with mental health issues.

The MindEd for Families website provides advice and guidance aimed at parents and carers seeking support when they suspect a child is battling a mental health problem.

Dr Raphael Kelvin, child psychiatrist and clinical lead for the MindEd programme, said: "We know that up to three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health disorder and half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.

"Left untreated, these disorders have the power to impact on a child's education and their ability to interact with others which can have a knock-on effect on employability and their lives as adults.

"That's why giving families the knowledge and information to support early effective intervention is essential."

:: To find out more visit: www.minded.org.uk/families.