More children and young people admitted to hospital for eating disorders

Jane Kirby, PA Health Editor
·6-min read

Watch: Parents warned over sharp rise in children with eating disorders

Hospital admissions for children with eating disorders have risen by almost a fifth in two years and by almost a third among all age groups, new figures show.

NHS Digital data for England obtained by the PA news agency shows a rise in admissions across most parts of the country, with the Covid-19 pandemic also having an effect on inpatient treatment.

The data shows there were 21,794 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in 2019/20, up 13% from the 19,244 in 2018/19 and up 32% from 16,547 in 2017/18.

For children aged 18 and under, there was a 9% rise in admissions from 4,554 in 2018/19 to 4,962 in 2019/20, but the jump was 19% from 4,160 admissions in 2017/18.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Some 4,348 of the admissions in 2019/20 were for teenagers aged 13 to 18, up 8% on a year earlier (4,021).

A further 418 admissions in 2019/20 were for 10 to 12-year-olds, up 12% on 374 a year earlier.

Almost half of the 418 admissions among 10 to 12-year-olds were for girls with anorexia (187) while there were also admissions for a range of eating disorders among youngsters under 10.

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at the charity Young Minds, said: “It is worrying to see a further rise in the number of children and young people being admitted to hospital for eating disorders.

“While there have been improvements in waiting times for eating disorder services for children in recent years, it can still be difficult for them to get the help they need before they reach crisis point.

“The factors behind eating disorders are complex but we know what a difference early support can make, often preventing problems from escalating and meaning that a young person is more likely to fully recover.

“With it becoming clearer that the pandemic is deepening the crisis in young people’s mental health, the Government must act to ensure that early support is there for those that are struggling and make prevention and early intervention a genuine priority.”

Eating disorders are characterised by eating too much or too little, being obsessed with weight or body shape, excessive exercise, having strict food routines and/or deliberate vomiting after eating.

The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

Overall, hospital admissions for anorexia rose 9% from 8,090 in 2018/19 to 8,796 in 2019/20, while bulimia rose 15% from 4,253 to 4,904.

Meanwhile, admissions for other types of eating disorders rose 17% from 6,901 to 8,094.

In the latest NHS Digital data, hospital admissions are most common in adults aged 26 to 40, with 6,510 in women and 437 in men in 2019/20.

The second most common group is those aged 19 to 25, with 4,216 admissions in women and 290 in men in 2019/20.

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While admissions have been going up year on year, provisional data for the first three months of the pandemic shutdown show a drop in admissions for anorexia.

For the three months April to June this year – the height of the first wave of the pandemic – some 195 admissions were for adults with anorexia, together with 252 for children under 18.

This is a drop compared to 257 for adults and 309 for children in the same three-month period a year earlier.

However, there was a rise in bulimia admissions, with 35 for adults and eight for children in the three-month pandemic period, up from 20 for adults and three for three children a year earlier.

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “This deadly illness is thriving because people have lost many of their support networks alongside access to community services as a result of Covid-19.

“Infection control and social distancing in inpatient units has also led to a reduced number of beds, so desperately-ill patients are struggling to get help.

“The Government and the NHS must take immediate action to tackle this crisis.

“All medical professionals should get better training in spotting eating disorders early and services should be properly resourced so patients who manage to get a referral don’t have to wait so long for treatment.”

The data comes as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) said parents and guardians should look out for signs of eating disorders in children and young people over the holiday period.

It said paediatricians have seen a huge rise in cases of anorexia and other food restriction disorders, with some reporting a doubling, tripling or even quadrupling of cases compared with the same period last year.

Not all of these lead to hospital admissions.

“I’ve worked in eating disorders for 10 years and I have never known us to be so busy,” said Dr Simon Chapman, a consultant paediatrician at King’s College Hospital and South London and the Maudsley.

“Referrals since March have tripled.”

Dr Nancy Bostock, a consultant paediatrician at the Croft Child and Family Unit, Cambridge, said: “In our Tier 4 under 13’s mental health inpatient unit we have seen a three to fourfold increase in children referred to our service with eating disorders, and they are just the tip of the iceberg.”

Dr Karen Street, officer for child mental health at the RCPCH, said: “We are extremely concerned about many children and teenagers’ wellbeing because of the pandemic.

“Many of them are just not coping. Eating disorders are often related to a need for control – something many young people feel they have lost during the pandemic.”

She said eating disorders often being with “quite small changes” such as refusing to eat previously enjoyed foods.

“If you’ve noticed a difference in the way your child or teenager approaches food and exercise and it concerns you, talk to them about what’s normal and what is not – often those with eating disorders will try to convince you all is OK but trust your instincts.”

Data from more than 8,200 adults in the Health Survey for England published last month shows one in six adults in England now has a possible eating disorder.

Among women, those under 35 were most likely to have a possible eating disorder (28% of those aged 16-24 and 27% of those aged 25-34).

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s mental health director, said: “The pandemic has turned lives upside down and hit young people particularly hard, so while a record high number of young people are in fact getting care for eating disorders, it is sadly a likely fact of the pandemic’s impact that more young people will need to seek out support for mental ill health, which is why the NHS is expanding care every year and continues to offer face-to-face appointments and inpatient care when needed while providing the option of phone and video consultations and online support where appropriate.”

She added: “Young people who are struggling with an eating disorder also stand to benefit significantly from recently announced rapid access to specialist NHS treatment across England, which will provide access to early intervention, treatment and support.”

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