Voices: We need a government that will guarantee mental health treatment within a month

Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder. One would think there would be better understanding and more support for sufferers, yet these illnesses are still heavily stigmatised. There is still such a deep misunderstanding of the illnesses and how people’s lives are truly affected.

Eating disorders have incredibly high mortality rates, with anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. A lack of action and treatment costs lives.

Though admissions have been rising even more sharply across the country since the pandemic, provision does not match need. It is vital the government gets a grip on the waiting-list crisis ruining the lives of those struggling with the illness, as well as their families.

As a doctor, I am seeing an increasing number of children coming to A&E having self-harmed or living with eating disorders. Parents bring their children to the hospital, wondering why they are repeatedly fainting or are constantly exhausted. Often the illness is hidden from the patient’s closest relatives. It is as heartbreaking as it is frightening.

Since 2014/15, hospital admissions for eating disorders have gone up by 60 per cent. For children, there has been a 41 per cent rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders in one year alone, when comparing April to October 2021 figures, with that of the same period the previous year. The government must act.

Doctors and nurses have to take the time to build trust with patients so they feel safe telling us they have reached crisis point. Talking to a stranger about difficult thoughts and feelings takes time. But, with national staff shortages, bed shortages, ambulances stretched, and ever-growing waiting times, this is simply impossible in the way we would like it to be. This is the reality on the NHS front line.

Far too often, specialist mental health staff are unavailable to come to see a patient in A&E, overstretched and unable to attend for many hours on end. Across the country, patients waiting to be admitted to local mental health NHS trusts regularly have to spend an entire weekend waiting in settings that are not best suited to their needs. Some give up and discharge themselves. Lost to the system. Desperate families feeling let down.

Access to the right treatment and support is life-changing, and early intervention provides the best chance for recovery. As well as prolonging the suffering, delays increase the costs to the NHS. Despite this, those who access treatment experience an average three-and-a-half-year gap between recognised onset of illness and start of treatment, due to delays in identification, referral and lengthy waiting times. This simply is not good enough.

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The next Labour government will guarantee mental health treatment within a month for all who need it, and will recruit 8,500 new staff so that 1 million additional people can access treatment every year by the end of the first term in office.

Early intervention is key if we want to give every child the opportunity of a healthy start in life. For children’s physical health we already have a preventative approach in place: children have regular check-ups for their hearing, eyesight and growth, and vaccinations are the norm. We should do the same for their mental health.

It is essential that resources are available for parents, that there is a mental health professional in every school. We need open access hubs in every community to ensure that children and young people can get the mental health support they need, in an environment that is safe and secure for them.

Eating disorders must be taken seriously, in order to save lives.