June 18, 2024

Vita Nectar

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Children with eating disorders not given timely access to care, NHS data shows | Eating disorders

2 min read

Children with “serious and potentially life-threatening” eating disorders are not being given timely access to care, the children’s commissioner for England has warned, as analysis shows the number starting treatment has more than doubled in six years.

According to the charity Beat, about 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia, of whom 25% are male.

A Guardian investigation previously found a sharp rise in the number of children in England seeking help for eating disorders, with the pandemic thought to have exacerbated increasing demand.

Now, an analysis of NHS data by the office of the children’s commissioner, Rachel de Souza, has revealed the number of children and young people beginning treatment for eating disorders has risen from 5,240 in 2016-17 to about 11,800 in 2022-23.

The analysis notes the most recent figures are an estimate and likely an undercount due to a large-scale cybersecurity attack that affected NHS systems.

“It’s worrying that children and young people are facing increasingly long waits for treatment for eating disorders – which are often serious and potentially life-threatening. Young people deserve timely access to effective care,” said De Souza.

“The government must also focus on tackling some of the potential drivers of disordered eating. Children need to be robustly protected from harmful eating disorder content online which can drive body image issues.”

The analysis, which was submitted as part of evidence gathering for the government’s major conditions strategy, also found that while government targets are for 95% of children and young people with eating disorders to begin treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for non-urgent cases, the targets were being missed in about one in five cases in the third quarter of 2022-23.

Children and young people with urgent cases were found to be waiting more than 12 weeks to start treatment, it said.

The analysis also reveals 24,300 young people received hospital treatment for an eating disorder in 2020-21, an 84% increase from 2016-17. While most were young women and girls, the number of hospital admissions for young men nearly doubled from 2016-17 to 2020-21.

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, said the level of unmet need was a concern.

“It’s a real worry that so many children and young people are having to wait for treatment for eating disorders,” she said.

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“With more than 1.8 million people on the waiting list for overstretched and understaffed mental health services, trusts are deeply concerned about levels of unmet need, particularly for children and young people.

“The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in many children and young people coming forward later with more complex symptoms which are often harder, and take longer, to treat.

“We need significant, long-term investment in and support for prevention and early intervention services to help children and young people sooner and to tackle the pressure of growing demand on the NHS, as well as more beds and safe, therapeutic environments to provide care for those who need it.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We’re boosting capacity at children and young people’s community eating disorder services across the country – allowing them to treat nearly 50% more young people in 2022-23 than 2019-20.

“We’re also investing an additional £2.3bn a year in NHS mental health services by March 2024, so more adults, children and young people in England get vital support quicker.”

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