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28 Feb 2022

Eating Disorders: Don’t squander the progress already made

Eating Disorders Awareness Week (28 February – 6 March) arrives this year with increasing numbers of people succumbing to conditions like anorexia and bulimia, as the pandemic has driven ever more isolation and anxiety, especially for young people.

NHS England recently reported that the number of children and teenagers waiting for specialist treatment had reached record levels. While they are treating more young people than before the pandemic, increasing numbers of people need specialist help.

In the three-month period to the end of 2021 alone there was a record 1,918 people waiting for routine treatment, and 203 waiting for urgent treatment.

Putting lives at risk

Given that the eating disorders like anorexia have a high mortality rate, it is no surprise that the Royal College of Psychiatrists described the situation as “putting lives at risk”.

“Eating disorder services are at risk of being overrun by the surging numbers of people needing help because of Covid-19.”

Dr Agnes Ayton, Chairwoman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty

In recent years successive governments have, to their credit, sought to tackle the longstanding problems people have experienced accessing prompt and effective care for these conditions.

For example, the creation of mental health support centres in 300 schools can help identify and triage pupils with eating disorders earlier and help to improve outcomes. But further reliable funding will be needed to roll out these sorts of facilities in all schools in England.

NHS England also announced the creation of early intervention services for young people with eating disorders in 18 areas just before the beginning of the pandemic.

Missed commitments

Girl looking away

But government commitments to ensure that by 2020/21, 95% of under-19s were treated within one week for urgent cases, and within four weeks for all other cases, have been missed due to the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns.

Moreover, for those who are most unwell there remains a serious lack of inpatient beds, with the number commissioned for children and young people falling by a fifth over the last five years.

This means not only that waiting times can be agonisingly long, but that even when a bed does become available it can be miles from home. The Royal College of Psychiatrists found that the average distance from home to treatment increased from 42 to 62 miles during the pandemic, with seven patients sent to Glasgow as there were no beds available in England.

And these are the lucky ones, in 2020/21 more than one third of young people referred to specialist services (including eating disorder services) were simply turned away, and it is unlikely this has improved in the last year.

Undermining progress

These developments have made a profoundly difficult situation that much worse for the many in need of help. And it is not just children and young people who are affected. Increasing numbers of adults, especially women, are experiencing serious problems with their relationship with food.

Much more needs to be done to support and treat people with eating disorders, so the lack of any additional money for mental health in the Government’s recent spending review is disappointing, and risks undermining what progress has been made.

Mental health still only accounts for 13% of NHS spending, despite taking up a third of all GP appointments and more than a quarter (28%) of the burden of disease.

We must not let the pandemic derail efforts to redress this imbalance.

Related content:

Say the right thing – from ‘Hope with Eating Disorders’ – we share an excerpt from SANE Champion, Lynn Crilly’s book which offers real understanding of the mind-set of someone suffering with an eating disorder.

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