‘Dramatic’ increase in under-20s being admitted to hospital for eating disorders

Specialist services struggling to cope with demand as number of young people hospitalised rises by 50 per cent

Kate Ng
Thursday 22 July 2021 12:09
Beat Eating Disorders

The number of people under 20 who have been admitted to hospital over the past year for an eating disorder has risen by nearly half, a BBC investigation has found.

More than 3,200 young people under 20 with eating disorders in England ended up in hospital, a figure nearly 50 per cent higher compared to 2019-20, according to data from NHS Digital.

The investigation also found than 3,000 young people are starting treatment for eating disorders every month, up from around 2,000 pre-pandemic.

NHS Providers warned that mental health trust leaders have not been able to meet the demand and a lack of beds and staff has also compounded the issue.

Eating disorder charities have said the rise was “not unexpected” as demand for help with eating disorders surged over the course of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the charity Beat, there was a 300 per cent rise in demand for its helpline services over the last year at its peak.

Tom Quinn, Beat’s director of external affairs, said: “It is extremely important that children and young people are able to find effective treatment quickly, as the sooner someone is treated the more likely they are to make a full and fast recovery.”

He also warned that frontline eating disorder staff are “under enormous pressure” due to the “huge numbers of children seeking, waiting and starting treatment” for eating disorders.

“The government has been increasing funding for children and young people’s eating disorder services but NHS data shows that the majority of additional money in 2019/20 was spent elsewhere,” said Quinn.

“[Frontline staff] are under enormous pressure and should be supported properly to cope with rising demand, starting with commissioners and employers ensuring that the extra money they are given is spent as it was intended.”

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the figures “give great cause for concern”.

“They confirm findings from our recent survey in which 85 per cent of mental health trust leaders said they could not meet demand for children and young people’s eating disorder services,” she said.

“Some described dramatic increases compared with the previous year and a worrying rise in delays for treatment. Many children and young people are presenting later with more complex symptoms, which are often harder, and take longer, to treat.”

The number of young people on the waiting list for treatment has increased to 1,500, three times higher than before the pandemic. Nearly three in 10 patients are waiting longer than is recommended, which is one week for urgent referrals and four weeks for routine referrals.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s mental health director, said the last year has “taken its toll” on the mental health of the country and NHS staff have “responded rapidly to treat more children and young people with eating disorders than ever before”.

She added that the NHS is consulting on new mental health access standards today to “help drive even more improvements in mental health care”.

A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Independent: “We recognise the devastating impact eating disorders can have. It is vital people with an eating disorder get the support they need and we urge anyone who needs help to come forward.

They pointed towards additional funding of £2.3bn being funnelled into “expanding and transforming mental health services” in addition to the government’s mental health recovery plan.

Quinn added: “Starting treatment early gives the very best chance of someone making a full recovery. Some parts of the country are adopting innovative approaches, including expanding the role of peer support workers and other non-clinical options, meaning that more patients can be helped sooner and are less likely to need hospital admission.

“Improved awareness and creative staffing solutions are essential if the NHS is to be able to help people as soon as they fall ill as well as treating those whose illness has progressed to a point of danger.”

For anyone struggling with the issues raised in this piece, eating disorder charity Beat’s helpline is available 365 days a year on 0808 801 0677. NCFED offers information, resources and counselling for those suffering from eating disorders, as well as their support networks. Visit eating-disorders.org.uk or call 0845 838 2040.

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