Co-occurrence of self-reported disordered eating and self-harm in UK university students


Correspondence should be addressed to Dr Fiona Wright, Glasgow and Clyde Weight Management Service, Ward 23, Surgical Block, Glasgow Royal Infirmary, 84 Castle Street, Glasgow G4 0SF, UK (e-mail:


Objectives. Students are reported to have more symptoms of mental health problems than other young people. Disordered eating and self-harm are common but evidence on comorbidity, especially in community samples, is limited. This study aimed to examine their co-occurrence, onset timing, and the help-seeking of UK university students.

Methods. Two surveys were administered to undergraduate students at a single UK university. One was administered electronically (UNIversity Quality of Life and Learning survey) and completed by 5,045 students. The second, questionnaire-based, was completed by 805 students (Student Well-Being study). Both surveys included questions about disordered eating, self-harm thoughts and behaviours, and psychological well-being.

Results. A strong relationship was found between reports of disordered eating and self-harm, with co-occurrence observed in 4.5 and 4.9% of students in the two surveys. Disordered eating and self-harm often pre-dated university entrance and there was no evidence of increasing levels of pathology by university year group. A younger age of onset of disordered eating behaviours was reported in those with co-occurring disordered eating and self-harm. Help-seeking rates were low.

Conclusions. The risk of co-occurrence and earlier onset-timing of disordered eating are consistent with a limited clinical literature. Information on co-occurrence of mental health problems, their history, and low rates of help-seeking identifies some of the challenge to universities and practitioners. These results suggest the value of access to screening resources and the involvement of service-users in shaping the support provided.