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Figures show there has been a dramatic surge in the number of those aged 18 and under seeking treatment since the start of the pandemic.
Experts have told of high-risk children being sent home with gastric feeding tubes when they would previously have been kept in hospital, patients being turned away because they are “not thin enough” and youngsters being sent to inpatient centres far away from their homes.
Eating disorder charity Beat, which has drawn on NHS figures and feedback from its helpline, says the level of need is “worse than it has ever been”.
It found 12,457 young people began treatment between April 2021 and March 2022, an increase of more than 50 per cent since 2019/20.
Nearly 2,000 more were still waiting for treatment at the end of March 2022 – almost three-and-a-half times the number of March 2020.
Beat’s Tom Quinn says: “The pandemic has had a devastating impact on those with eating disorders, with many experiencing heightened anxiety and isolation during the past two years. We have seen more people seeking help for an eating disorder for the first time, worsening symptoms for those with an existing eating disorder, and relapses for others who were in recovery. NHS staff have been working incredibly hard to support their patients.”
Professor Janet Treasure, director of the Eating Disorder Unit at King’s College London, said: “There has been a surge in demand from both adult and children’s services but there are not enough clinicians to treat patients.”
“The longer people wait, the more damage to the brain and the body, which increases as the illness becomes more embedded.”
Sophie Corlett, director of external affairs at mental health charity Mind, said: “Our Government is failing children and young people with eating disorders at the time they need help most. Eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any mental health problem.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have continued to increase investment in children and young people’s community eating disorder services every year, with an extra £53million per year from 2021/22, which will increase the capacity of the 70 community eating disorder teams covering the whole of the country.”
Jenny Tan: ‘Delays meant my anorexia got worse’
Jenny Tan knows all too well the problems teenagers with eating disorders face when asking for help.
The 19-year-old has struggled with the condition since she was 15, having been bullied in primary and secondary school about being fat, despite not being overweight – which “hit [her] deeply”.
Stress before GCSE mocks and a Duke of Edinburgh expedition left her barely able to eat at all.
After nearly fainting, she was pulled out of the trek. Her school counsellor resisted labelling Jenny, but her parents took her to a GP in 2018, concerned she was very underweight, tired, often felt cold and her periods had stopped.
Jenny, from Surrey, was put on a waiting list for the Child and Adult Mental Health Service but warned of long delays.
She was also given a number for cognitive behavioural therapy with a private practitioner, which she says “didn’t help very much”.
Prior to the first 2020 lockdown, she was dangerously malnourished – and a return to the GP finally led her to be diagnosed with anorexia.
She faced a three-week wait for therapy but, due to restrictions, the clinic she was referred to shut and her assessments went online.
Ultimately she was discharged from therapy in December 2020, after her therapist left the service.
“I was just cut off,” said Jenny, “but my mental health had not been helped.
“I was just given a booklet to do on my own.”
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