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Eating disorder referrals and treatment among young people in England reach record levels

Young people walking
Image credit: Claire Zhu (Unsplash)

A record number of children and adolescents are awaiting and receiving treatment for eating disorders in England, according to a new analysis of NHS figures

Although exact figures are difficult to pin down, the number of people thought to be living with an eating disorder in the UK is around 1.25 million. Many of these cases will have developed during adolescence and can manifest in many different ways, from more well-known eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia, to non-specific eating disorder behaviours.

As the Covid-19 pandemic continued throughout 2020 and 2021, the number of cases of eating disorders rose across the country, particularly among young people. In England, NHS figures showed that children waiting for urgent or routine treatment for an eating disorder had more than doubled.

Now, those figures have reached record numbers, according to an analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP).

From April to June this year, 22,207 young people were waiting for urgent treatment, an increase of 56 at the same time last year, while those waiting for routine treatment had risen to 1,832, up from 441.

More young people are being treated for eating disorders than ever before too: the number of those that received urgent treatment increased from 328 in the first quarter last year to 852 this year.

The increase in numbers is largely due to a disrupted health service trying to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, says Agnes Ayton, chair of the faculty of eating disorders psychiatry at the RCP, which has led to many young people being unable to access treatment when they need it most.


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“Delays to treatment can put lives at risk. Services are struggling with soaring demand, fewer beds because of social distancing, and an ongoing shortage of specialist doctors," says Ayton.

A missed commitment

NHS eating disorder services need to ensure they meet the government's standard for treatment referrals, which currently says that under-19s should receive treatment within 1 week of referral for urgent cases, and within 4 weeks of referral for all other severities.

According to NHS England data, this target is unfortunately being missed, and by quite some distance too. In the first quarter of this year, 61% of patients started urgent treatment within 1 week, while 73% patients started routine treatment within 4 weeks. The figures are markedly down from the respective 88% and 87% numbers seen at the same time last year.

“The government made an ambitious commitment on waiting times, but the pandemic has set us back years. Urgent action is needed to ensure children and young people with eating disorders get the help they need when they need it," adds Ayton.

As outlined in the 2019 NHS Long Term Plan, the government has always intended to increase funding for mental health services for young people. And this promise came to fruition in April this year with the announcement of a £79 million investment package. A further £40 million was then announced in July to specifically combat rising numbers of eating disorders in young people.

The RCP is calling for additional funding to help frontline eating disorder services.


Written by Marco Ricci

Editor and contributor for Talking Mental Health

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