An investigation has found that eating disorders among young people in England almost doubled over 5 years, with the increase accompanied by longer waiting times to get urgent treatment.
There had also been "a large and recent increase" in the number of young people admitted to hospital because of eating disorders, the analysis by the Children's Commissioner found.
One specialist eating disorders charity said the findings should "set alarm bells ringing" in Whitehall and the NHS.
The analysis used NHS figures showing that overall, 24,300 people were admitted to hospital in 2020-21 for treatment of an eating disorder – up 84% since 2015-16. Of those, 11,700 (48%) were aged under 25 and most (10,800; 92%) were young women and girls, it found.
Although fewer males than females were affected, admissions of young men had more than doubled over the same period, according to the figures.
Young People "Disproportionately" Affected by Eating Disorders
The Commissioner's office highlighted that a "disproportionate" number of the estimated 1.25 million people with eating disorders in the UK were aged under 25. Left untreated, the condition could lead to severe malnutrition, family dysfunction or relationship breakdown, and was sometimes fatal. In addition, children and young people with eating disorders often have other serious mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety, which need to be managed simultaneously, the report noted.
NHS England's children and young people's eating disorders programme acknowledges that rapid access to effective help for children and young people with eating disorders, as well as their families and carers, is "vital", and that offering evidence-based, high-quality care and support "as soon as possible" improves recovery rates, reduces relapses, and lowers inpatient admissions.
Missed Treatment Targets
Since 2021-22, the target has been that 95% of children and young people with eating disorders begin treatment within 1 week for urgent, and 4 weeks for non-urgent, cases. However, latest published figures for the third quarter of 2022-23 showed only 78% of urgent cases and 81% of non-urgent cases were seen within target time frames. This however coincided with an increase in the number of young people starting treatment following the period of COVID restrictions, with those needing treatment having more than doubled since 2016-17.
Over this period, cases of anorexia had increased from 905 to 1349 (+49%) among girls aged 13 to 15; from 985 to 1274 (+29%) among those aged 16 to 18, and from 1301 to 1661 (+28%) among 19 to 25-year-old women. Anorexia had the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric condition, the report highlighted. Equivalent large rises were seen for 'other eating disorders', which include overeating or vomiting in association with other psychological disorders.
In addition, the analysis showed that 45% of urgent cases and 34% of routine cases waited more than 12 weeks to start treatment in the last quarter of 2022-23.
Children’s Commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, described the findings as "worrying", and called on the Government to "focus on tackling some of the potential drivers of disordered eating". She identified a particular need to "robustly" protect children from harmful eating disorder content online, which "can drive body image issues".
The Commissioner said that it was "critical" that the Department for Health and Social Care’s forthcoming Major Conditions Strategy remained focused on the needs of children and did not dilute the "urgent need" to tackle children’s mental health.
"Completely Unacceptable" Waits for Treatment
In a statement to Medscape News UK, Tom Quinn, director of external affairs for eating disorder charity Beat, said: "These figures should set alarm bells ringing for the Government and NHS commissioners. It's completely unacceptable that children and young people are waiting so long for treatment, even in urgent cases, as the risk of a longer or more complicated recovery increases with every day that passes."
He said that while clinical staff were trying to support as many children as possible, the Government was failing to give eating disorder services the support they need. "Allocating more funding isn’t enough – ensuring that it is ring-fenced and reaches frontline services must be a priority," he urged.