There has been a 66% rise in children and young people receiving urgent eating disorder treatment since 2019, a Royal College has warned.
Analysis of data by the Royal College of Psychiatrists also found a rise in people seeking help, with large numbers of those being children and teenagers.
The NHS target for children and young people is for 95% of urgent patients to be seen within one week and routine patients to be seen within four weeks following a referral.
Latest NHS estimates for quarter three of 2022/23 suggest 78% of patients are seen within a week and 81% within four weeks against this target.
Full figures from NHS trusts for quarter one of 2022/23 show 68% of patients were seen within a week and 69% within four weeks.
Overall, the number of children and young people receiving urgent care has gone up by 66% for quarter one since 2019 – from 318 to 529 in quarter one of 2022/23.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists said eating disorder services in England have been “flooded” with referrals for children and young people over the past three years, with around 50% more patients overall – both routine and urgent – requiring specialist services.
The college warned there is a postcode lottery of care, with patients forced into long waits and at risk of becoming severely ill before starting treatment.
It is calling for more staff, with an increase in medical school places to 15,000 by 2028/29.
It also wants support for NHS trusts to meet an annual 4% improvement target in retaining mental health staff.
Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwoman of the eating disorder faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It’s simply not acceptable that waiting times have increased when we are seeing record levels of referrals for children and young people.
“This is a warning that we gave three years ago and it beggars belief that nothing has changed.
“Admissions have been sharply rising since even before the pandemic, under-19s now account for 30% of hospital stays for eating disorders, with no sign of abating.
“We know that delays cause patients to become even more unwell, with potentially life-threatening consequences.
“Overstretched services are already struggling to meet demand, so how can we continue to subject these children and young people to a postcode lottery?”
The figures come after data obtained by the PA news agency in January showed a dramatic rise in the number of children needing treatment for serious mental health problems including eating disorders.
There has been a 39% rise in a year in referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under-18s, to more than a million (1,169,515) in 2021/22.
This compares with the previous year 2020/21 – pandemic year – when the figure was 839,570. In 2019/20 there were 850,741 referrals.
Meanwhile, NHS Digital data analysed by PA showed hospital admissions for eating disorders are rising among children and young people.
Among under-18s, there were 7,719 admissions in 2021/22, up from 6,079 the previous year and 4,232 in 2019/20 – an 82% rise across two years.
From April to October 2022 – the most recent data available – there were 3,456 admissions, up 38% from 2,508 for the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at charity Beat, said: “Delays to treatment can lead to people becoming more severely unwell and in need of hospital treatment, which is why it’s so concerning that people are not getting the support they need quickly enough.
“The pandemic has had a devasting impact on people with eating disorders. At Beat, we provided more than triple the amount of support during 2021-2022 in comparison to before the pandemic, and we know that many people have felt increasingly isolated, anxious and distressed during the past few years.
“Many more children and young people have started NHS eating disorder treatment in comparison to before the pandemic, which is a testament to the incredible work of NHS staff. But demand for treatment has been increasing and NHS services are struggling to keep up.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to improving mental health services. Almost £1 billion is being invested in community mental health care for adults, including eating disorders, by 2024 and we’re providing an additional £54 million per year in children and young people’s community eating disorder services to increase capacity across the country.
“We’re also expanding the number of trainees and qualified practitioners able to deliver treatment for people with eating disorders, Health Education England (HEE) has developed training for primary care staff, and the General Medical Council (GMC) is working to improve recognition and treatment of eating disorders.”