A SOARING number of young girls are being forcibly hospitalised amid an eating disorder "epidemic".

In one year the number of girls under the age of 18 who were subjected to compulsory hospital treatment for mental illness increased by almost one-third.

Data going back to 2011 shows the need to detain girls on hospital wards for their own safety has been growing annually.

The same trend does not apply to boys - who are less likely than girls to require this drastic treatment for mental health problems at such a young age.

Experts from the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, who have just published the latest figures, say eating disorders, self-harm and being a suicide risk are the main reasons young girls are detained in hospital under the Mental Health Act.

Psychiatrist Dr Jane Morris, chair of the faculty of eating disorders for the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: "From all over Britain and probably Europe we are seeing a real increase in eating disorders in young women and that is terribly sad.

"Given that we are very clear about that, I do not think we can completely slate the idea that more of them are being detained for their own good."

She also said there was growing recognition that severe anorexia, at a time when it threatened a patient's growth and development, warranted compulsory care.

The new figures show that in 2014-15, there were 172 episodes of compulsory treatment for mentally ill girls in Scotland. This compares to 130 in 2013-14 and 97 in 2011-12.

Dr Morris, who works in a Scottish psychiatric hospital, links the rise of eating disorders to the proliferation of body images on the internet and the pressures of social networking.

Describing those who need treatment as the "tip of an iceberg," she said: "If you take the average girl in the street or playground or sixth year common room you would find they would strike much higher on eating disorder and body image questionnaires than 50 years or even 20 years ago."

The web has also become a way for anorexia sufferers to share their tactics and results. Dr Morris said: "Nearly all of my patients are in very close Facebook, text and Instagram contact with each other. One of the ways the illness manifests is doing things like exchanging pictures of their own emaciation and competing."

While she notes the internet can also help support people recover, she believes it can "amplify the severity" of patients' illness.

She raised concern about the number of young sufferers who are sent to adult psychiatric wards or ordinary paediatric wards where there is no specialist support for their eating problem.

The Scottish Children's Services Coalition - which brings together a range of organisations who work with the young - is calling for action saying 207 young people with a range of mental health problems were admitted to inappropriate wards last year - up 40 per cent since 2008-09.

Dr Morris said the provision of specialist beds for eating disorder patients was not increasing as fast as it should. However, she added that Scottish services were pioneering "family based treatment" (FBT) where staff trained parents to deal with their child's eating habits so they could help them recover at home.

She said: "One potential solution to this very sad situation of having to put people into hospital - and sometimes not even into entirely appropriate wards - is to really campaign for investment into FBT."

A spokeswoman for the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition said there was a clear need for research into why admissions for girls were rising.

She said: “We are aware from research that over the last few years that boys and girls experienced similar rates of social, peer and behavioural problems, but for girls there has been a rise in those with emotional issues, suggesting they face unique pressures.

“We can’t say for sure why problems are increasing, but there are many factors that could contribute. These include increasing stresses on girls and young women, ranging from academic pressure to their increasing sexualisation and objectification, amplified by social media, with the drive to achieve unrealistic body images. This is leading to issues such as anorexia and self-harm."