OBJECTIVE: The disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with poor mental health, including increases in eating disorders and self-harm symptoms. We investigated risk and protective factors for the new onset of these symptoms during the pandemic.
METHOD: Data were from the COVID-19 Psychiatry and Neurological Genetics study and the Repeated Assessment of Mental health in Pandemics Study (n = 36,715). Exposures were socio-demographic characteristics, lifetime psychiatric disorder, and COVID-related variables, including SARS-CoV-2 infection/illness with COVID-19. We identified four subsamples of participants without pre-pandemic experience of our outcomes: binge eating (n = 24,211), low weight (n = 24,364), suicidal and/or self-harm ideation (n = 18,040), and self-harm (n = 29,948). Participants reported on our outcomes at frequent intervals (fortnightly to monthly). We fitted multiple logistic regression models to identify factors associated with the new onset of our outcomes.
RESULTS: Within each subsample, new onset was reported by: 21% for binge eating, 10.8% for low weight, 23.5% for suicidal and/or self-harm ideation, and 3.5% for self-harm. Shared risk factors included having a lifetime psychiatric disorder, not being in paid employment, higher pandemic worry scores, and being racially minoritized. Conversely, infection with SARS-CoV-2/illness with COVID-19 was linked to lower odds of binge eating, low weight, and suicidal and/or self-harm ideation.
DISCUSSION: Overall, we detected shared risk factors that may drive the comorbidity between eating disorders and self-harm. Subgroups of individuals with these risk factors may require more frequent monitoring during future pandemics.
PUBLIC SIGNIFICANCE: In a sample of 35,000 UK residents, people who had a psychiatric disorder, identified as being part of a racially minoritized group, were not in paid employment, or were more worried about the pandemic were more likely to experience binge eating, low weight, suicidal and/or self-harm ideation, and self-harm for the first time during the pandemic. People with these risk factors may need particular attention during future pandemics to enable early identification of new psychiatric symptoms.