NHS hospital admissions for eating disorders rise among ethnic minorities

Faster increase among BAME people in England raises fears of cultural or racial factors

The number of hospital admissions for eating disorders is rising at a faster rate among people from ethnic minorities in England, prompting concerns that there may be cultural or racial factors driving them.

For white ethnicities, hospital admissions for eating disorders rose by just under a third (31%) across three years, whereas admissions among ethnic minorities rose by more than a half (53%), according to Guardian analysis of NHS data.

Admissions for white ethnicities increased from 13,340 in 2017-18 to 17,467 in 2019-20. However for ethnic minorities there was a steeper increase, with 1,115 admissions in 2017-18 to 1,702 admissions in 2019-20.

The sharpest rise was for people from a black African background, among whom the number of hospital admissions for eating disorders increased by a staggering 216%, rising from 69 admissions in 2017-18 to 218 admissions in 2019-20.

Graph: rise in eating disorders

Dr Agnes Ayton, the chair of the faculty of eating disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said a rise in admissions for eating disorders suggested patients were not receiving timely treatment and were ending up in hospital as a result.

“Training healthcare professionals to spot and treat eating disorders early will reduce hospital admissions and ultimately save lives. Investment in specialist eating disorder services finally reaching the frontline can help achieve that,” she said.

“We also need to investigate whether there are specific cultural or racial factors leading to a higher rate of admissions of BAME patients and if this could be down to poorer detection and less effective treatment within this group.”

The analysis comes after studies suggesting the same trend of rising eating disorder cases. A study published by King’s College London last year suggested rates of anorexia among pre-teen children had doubled in 10 years.

How eating disorders might affect ethnic minorities in particular was highlighted in a study published last year by the UK eating disorder charity Beat, which suggested that stereotypes about who gets an eating disorder might prevent people from ethnic minority backgrounds from seeking treatment.

Beat’s head of communications, Steph Winteringham, said: “Research has shown that eating disorders affect people of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds but often ethnic minorities face additional barriers to accessing a diagnosis and treatment. If hospital admissions for eating disorders continue to rise at a faster rate for ethnic minorities then this suggests that either BAME people with eating disorders are being identified and referred more frequently than in the past, or that the prevalence or severity of eating disorders has increased in these populations.

“It is crucial that those affected by eating disorders receive the treatment they need without delay, as this lowers the likelihood of needing inpatient treatment and gives patients the best chance of making a full and sustained recovery. We would urge anyone concerned about their health to contact their GP at the earliest opportunity.”

The data, provided by NHS Digital, refers to finished admission episodes, which is defined by the first period of inpatient care under one consultant within one healthcare provider. While the data represents the number of admissions, it does not represent the number of inpatients, as a person may have more than one admission within the year. NHS England has been contacted for comment.

An NHS spokesperson said: “Record numbers of children and young people are being treated for eating disorders, waiting times are improving significantly and it is thanks to the hard work of staff that despite the pandemic, the NHS supported more children and young people to get the care they need within four weeks compared to the same period last year.

“While new and expanding community-based mental health care will provide treatment and support for 370,000 adults, including those with eating disorders as part of the NHS Long Term Plan, for anyone experiencing poor mental health, the NHS message remains the same: please help us help you, and come forward for the care you need.”


Tobi Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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