Social media pressure and Covid-19 pandemic behind a surge in mental health problems among young people

A doctor blames social media pressure for a large increase in referrals to mental health services, as MPs call for regulation of doctored body images

3rd August 2022 about a 3 minute read
“It’s as busy as I've ever seen in my career. There is no doubt we’re in a different position to where we were nationally about three years ago. Numbers are up, they are up across all age groups and in all types of presentations." Dr Derek Tracy, medical director, West London NHS Trust

The combination of the Covid-19 pandemic and social media pressures are likely to be the cause of the surge in mental health problems among young people, according to West London NHS Trust.

The trust’s medical director, Dr Derek Tracy, told Sky News he had never seen such a high demand for mental health treatment. Referrals to its children and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) had increased by 140% – though the report doesn’t say over what time  period.

Tracy said: “It’s as busy as I’ve ever seen in my career. There is no doubt we’re in a different position to where we were nationally about three years ago. Numbers are up, they are up across all age groups and in all types of presentations.”

He said he thought that the pandemic and associated restrictions were likely to be at least partly responsible for the rise: “There’s increased isolation, working from home is great for some people. It’s not for other people. And I think our way of life has changed, and it’s an anxious time, people will have relatives who are sick, maybe suffer from COVID or suffered it themselves.”

There was also concern, he added, about the role of social media and its influence on  “how people see themselves, how they’re engaging with the world.”

Impact of body image has ‘wide-reaching’ impact on mental health

Tracy’s comments coincide with a report from the House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee calling for more regulation to stop the doctoring of commercial images to alter people’s physical appearance. The proposals would require commercial providers to carry a logo to let audiences know that an image has been digitally altered to, for example, change a person’s body proportion or skin tone. According to the report, the impact of body image on mental and physical health is “wide-reaching” and that the government was “not doing enough to understand the scale of the risks” linked to body image dissatisfaction.

The report said: “Body image dissatisfaction and its associated health impacts can affect anyone regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity or age. Body images can also result in increased health risks for specific groups, from the increased risk of suicide in those suffering from body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) to the total suppression of testosterone and its cardiovascular risks in people taking long-term anabolic steroids.”

Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. Disorders such as anorexia claim more lives than any other psychiatric condition.

According to data from NHS Digital, the proportion of 11 to 16-year-olds England with possible eating problems has increased from 6.7% in 2017 to 13% today. In 17-19 year olds, the figure has increased from 44.6% to 58.2%.

In 2020/21, the NHS saw an 83% increase in demand for urgent eating disorder services and a 41% increase for routine services.

Between April and October 2021, there were 4,238 hospital admissions for eating disorders for children aged 17 and under, up 41% on the same period the year before.

FCC Insight

The very steep rise in mental health referrals among young people and, in particular, the substantial increase in eating disorders, is troubling. It’s not a problem that can be solved easily, but resources must be invested in better mental health support in the community for young people. MPs are right to draw attention to the problems caused by the prevalence of unrealistic body images targeted at young people, and to call for better regulation of commercial companies using doctored images.