Record number of children and young people waiting for eating disorder treatment

·4-min read

The number of children and young people waiting for eating disorder treatment has risen to record levels during the coronavirus pandemic, figures show.

NHS England data shows there were 207 under-19s waiting for urgent eating disorder treatment at the end of June, up from 56 at the same time last year and the highest total in records going back to 2016.

The figures also showed that there was a record 1,832 patients waiting for routine treatment at the end of June, up from 441 at the end of the June 2020.

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The Royal College of Psychiatrists said services were struggling to provide timely treatment in the face of “overwhelming” demand.

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of its faculty of eating disorders psychiatry, said: “The pandemic has had a huge impact on children and young people with disruption to their schooling, social lives and home lives.

“Many young people have not received support early enough, causing their eating disorders to become much worse and harder to treat.

“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.”

An estimated 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK with behaviours including limiting food consumption, eating very large amounts of food, purging, fasting or excessive exercise in response to eating, or a combination of these, the Royal College of Psychiatrists said.

The figures, published on August 12, also show while the number of patients waiting for routine and urgent treatment has reached record levels more children and young people are being treated than ever before.

Children & young people in England waiting for routine eating disorder treatment
(PA Graphics)

The number of patients starting urgent eating disorder treatment between April and June was 852, compared to 328 during the same period of 2020 – the highest number on record.

But the proportion of children and young people starting urgent treatment within one week fell to 61%, down from a record high of 88% in the same period last year.

The number of children and young people starting routine treatment for eating disorders rose to its highest level on record at 2,600 between April and June, compared to 1,347 during the same period in 2020.

And while 73% of patients started routine treatment within four weeks between April and June, this was down from 87% in the same period of 2020.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said the data showed how far the NHS was from achieving the Government’s commitment that 95% of under-19s receive treatment within one week for urgent cases and within four weeks for routine cases by the end of 2020-21.

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Dr Ayton added: “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.”

NHS England said the health service is treating more children and young people with eating disorders than ever and during the pandemic the data has shown a surge in demand.

Community eating disorder services over the last year have continued to offer treatment using remote ways working to deliver individual and family interventions alongside face-to-face appointments, it added.

Claire Murdoch, national director for mental health in England, said: “The pandemic has taken its toll on the country’s mental health and staff have responded rapidly to treat children and young people with eating disorders.

“Thanks to additional funding of £79 million this year on top of dedicated services already rolled out in every part of the country, the NHS has treated more people with an eating disorder than ever before.”

Tom Quinn, of eating disorder charity Beat, said at the peak of the pandemic it saw a 300% increase in contact compared with before it began, and it was no surprise to see cases increasing in children and young people.

“For some who already had an eating disorder their illness has worsened, more people have developed an eating disorder for the first time, and others who thought they had recovered from their eating disorder have relapsed,” he said.

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