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Eating disorder services in England 'in crisis', say psychiatrists

The Royal College of Psychiatrists reported 51% more children and young people being referred to both routine and urgent, eating disorder services.

Eating disorders services in England are in crisis as admissions for children and young people increased by more than half in the past three years.

However, every single region in England is not meeting the government’s target for 95% of urgent and routine patients to be seen within one-four weeks after referral.

In 2020 the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned of an all-time high for children and young people seeking treatment for eating disorders. 

'Three years on we are facing an eating disorders crisis,' the college said.

This means children and young people are having to wait for long periods of time to be seen which risks them becoming more severely ill before starting treatment, costing the NHS more over time.

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‘We know that delays cause patients to become even more unwell, with potentially life-threatening consequences. Overstretched services are already struggling to meet demand, so how can we continue to subject these children and young people to a postcode lottery?’ asked Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Eating Disorder Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

Staff have described having high workloads and poor work-life balance, with older consultants more likely to retire early, as workforce shortages continue to undermine service capacity.

Demands for these services are at an all-time high, as the last two years has seen a near three quarter fold increase in children and young people being referred for urgent for eating disorders.

This is a direct impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis.

‘Coming out of the pandemic many children and young people are experiencing anxiety related to lockdowns, school closures, loss of structure and peer group activities, loneliness, as well as this, the detrimental effect of the cost of living crisis has contributed to the surge in eating disorders,’ said Professor Sandeep Ranote, consultant paediatric psychiatrist and medical executive lead for mental health, NHS Greater Manchester Integrated Care.

Eating disorder charity, Beat, also reported providing more than triple the amount of support during 2021-2022 in comparison to before the pandemic.

The current situation looks bleak as demands for eating disorder services continues to increase but lack of appropriate staffing levels, means there aren’t enough people to provide it.

This is causing added strains on overworked staff leading to delays in children and young people getting the treatment they need.

‘If the Government is serious about dealing with this ongoing crisis, they must produce adequate funding for the impending NHS Workforce Plan. Specialist services should be supported with the same level of focus given to elective care,’ said Dr Ayton.

The NHS Confederation’s mental health network (MHN) is also calling for the government to provide at least an additional £12million of funding over the next year to ensure children and young people can have quick access to specialist eating disorder services.

Sean Duggan, chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network warned: ‘The more the government overlooks the pressures and demand in mental health, the bigger the crisis becomes both for people who are already in desperate need of help and for the service itself.’