Background: Young adults and especially those with pre-existing mental health conditions, such as disordered eating and self-harm, appear to be at greater risk of developing metal health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it is unclear whether this increased risk is affected by any changes in lockdown restrictions, and whether any lifestyle changes could moderate this increased risk.
Methods: In a longitudinal UK population-based cohort (The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, ALSPAC) we assessed the relationship between pre-pandemic measures of disordered eating and self-harm and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2,657 young adults. Regression models examined the relationship between self-reported disordered eating, self-harm, and both disordered eating and self-harm at age 25 years and depressive symptoms, anxiety symptoms and mental wellbeing during a period of eased restrictions in the COVID-19 pandemic (May-July 2020) when participants were aged 27-29 years. Analyses were adjusted for sex, questionnaire completion date, pre-pandemic socioeconomic disadvantage and pre-pandemic mental health and wellbeing. We also examined whether lifestyle changes (sleep, exercise, alcohol, visiting green space, eating, talking with family/friends, hobbies, relaxation) in the initial UK lockdown (April-May 2020) moderated these associations.
Results: Pre-existing disordered eating, self-harm and comorbid disordered eating and self-harm were all associated with the reporting of a higher frequency of depressive symptoms and anxiety symptoms, and poorer mental wellbeing during the pandemic compared to individuals without disordered eating and self-harm. Associations remained when adjusting for pre-pandemic mental health measures. There was little evidence that interactions between disordered eating and self-harm exposures and lifestyle change moderators affected pandemic mental health and wellbeing.
Conclusions: Young adults with pre-pandemic disordered eating, self-harm and comorbid disordered eating and self-harm are at increased risk for developing symptoms of depression, anxiety and poor mental wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic, even when accounting for pre-pandemic mental health. Lifestyle changes during the pandemic do not appear to alter this risk. A greater focus on rapid and responsive service provision is essential to reduce the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of these already vulnerable individuals.
Plain English summary: The aim of this project was to explore the mental health of young adults with disordered eating behaviours (such as fasting, vomiting/taking laxatives, binge-eating and excessive exercise) and self-harm during the COVID-19 pandemic. We analysed data from an established study that has followed children from birth (in 1991 and 1992) up to present day, including during the pandemic when participants were 28 years old. We looked at the relationship between disordered eating and/or self-harm behaviours from before the pandemic and mental health problems (symptoms of depression and anxiety) and mental wellbeing during the pandemic. We also explored whether there were any lifestyle changes (such as changes in sleep, exercise, visiting green space) that might be linked to better mental health and wellbeing in young adults with disordered eating and self-harm. We found that young adults with prior disordered eating and/or self-harm had more symptoms of depression and anxiety, and worse mental wellbeing than individuals without prior disordered eating or self-harm. However, lifestyle changes did not appear to affect mental health and wellbeing in these young adults. Our findings suggest that people with a history of disordered eating and/or self-harm are at high risk for developing mental health problems during the pandemic, and they will need help from mental health services.