Do a quarter of students have an eating disorder?

In amongst all the budget excitement today, an interesting (and in some ways very worrying) little curio has appeared from the Office for National Statistics.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

We knew that it was continuing with its “coronavirus and higher education students survey” this year, and indeed I put a note up on the first batch of findings last week.

What has appeared today is something slightly different – coronavirus and first year higher education students (again in England, defined here as foundation and first year undergraduates), this time with a data collection period of 4 October to 11 October 2021.

At first glance I thought that ONS had just done us a “first year slice” of their more general study, but it appears that some additional questions have been asked with some quite interesting findings.

First is the now familiar mental health finding – broadly consistent with the main survey, average life satisfaction for first year students was 6.6 (out of 10), but lower than those aged 16 to 29 years in general (6.9), and significantly lower than the adult population of Great Britain (7.1).

Worryingly, when asked about how they felt over the previous two weeks, 37 percent of first year students showed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 39 percent showed signs of likely having some form of anxiety. ONS reminds us that as the survey was conducted early in the academic year, it is likely that this two-week period coincided with at least some of the students moving to or attending university for the first time – so we’ll need to see if these figures settle down.

I’ve not seen this done before – but students were also asked questions from ONS’ Sick, Control, One, Fat, Food (SCOFF) questionnaire to assess possible presence of an eating disorder. Overall, responses from 23 percent of first year students suggested possible issues with food or body image, and responses from 27 percent of students suggested that they may have an eating disorder – areas that have received much less attention than others in the past,

ONS asked about preferences for student support delivery methods. Despite anecdotal reports from student services types over the past 18 months, in this survey first year students indicated a clear preference for any mental health and well-being support to be face-to-face, with 70 percent reporting they would prefer this and only 13 percent saying they would prefer a virtual format.

One big question this year has been preparedness. Here almost half (46 percent) of first year students reported that their academic performance had been significantly or majorly affected since the start of the pandemic, and 4 in 10 said that the reduction in face-to-face learning since the start of the pandemic meant that they did not feel well prepared. And while the majority (53 percent) of students said that they would prefer a blended learning format in the future (with a mix of face-to-face and virtual lectures or seminars), 40 percent wanted face-to-face sessions only, and just 5% wanted online only. These still don’t feel like especially reconcilable positions.

Finally, it’s early days but ONS has triangulated self-perception around academic performance with hours of face to face teaching in the past week and found no meaningful difference. Once we’re into the back half of this term, if differences start to emerge between 0 hours face to face and “some” hours face to face, that will be interesting – and if large proportions of students start to tick “0 hours face to face” at all, that will be alarming for a sector that’s been insisting to politicians and the press that online complements, rather than replaces, trad teaching.

3 responses to “Do a quarter of students have an eating disorder?

  1. I’m not sure the article really answers the headline, but it’s definitely concerning. I did a quick search and found the wording of the questions, which I assume are unchanged in this survey:

    Do you make yourself Sick (induce vomiting) because you feel uncomfortably full?
    Do you worry you have lost Control over how much you eat?
    Have you recently lost more than One stone [approximately fifteen pounds] in a 3 month period?
    Do you believe yourself to be Fat when others say you are too thin?
    Would you say that Food dominates your life?

    These questions are pretty unambiguous, and my search says that answering two or more of these questions as “yes” is taken as an indication a person may be suffering from an eating disorder. It is certainly difficult to see how somebody could fit two or more of these criteria and not be due some serious concern.

    As someone who has had issues with disordered eating, but wouldn’t be captured by these questions, I think the results given by 27% of students surveyed is pretty clear and damning. I hope this data is taken seriously moving forwards, and time is spent on discussing how it can be best addressed.

    1. Thanks Laura

      I don’t think my issues at university would have been captured by these questions, either. The GP at the University medical centre was not helpful when I did have enough insight to recognise I needed support, as she just said, ‘you look alright to me’. However, the University Counselling Service was helpful – they put on a ‘Food and Mood’ exhibit in the Students Union building and I did recognise that my mood was not good, so that helped me to improve my food.

      1. Sasha, this is interesting. Could you perhaps give more details about the Food and Mood exhibit in that Student Union? I’ve done a quick Google search but I can’t seem to locate the actual exhibit. I think this is something that would be nice to implement on other university campuses.
        Feel free to also message me privately if you prefer.

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