A record number of children and young people with a potentially life-threatening eating disorder are waiting for treatment in England, as psychiatrists warn soaring demand is overwhelming services.
NHS data analysed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that while the number of those waiting for urgent and routine treatment has reached record levels during the pandemic, more children and young people are being treated than ever before.
The analysis found that at the end of the first quarter (April, May and June) of 2021-22, 207 patients were waiting for urgent treatment, up from 56 at the same time last year.
A further 1,832 patients were waiting for routine treatment, up from 441 at the same time last year. And 852 patients received urgent treatment, compared with 328 in the first quarter of 2020-21.
Experts have warned that the number of people experiencing problems has increased sharply amid the pandemic with conditions such as anorexia on the rise in the isolation of lockdown. Disruption to health services also means more people have had to wait longer for help.
Agnes Ayton, chair of the faculty of eating disorders psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said the pandemic had disrupted children’s lives and many young people had been unable to seek help for an eating disorder early enough, meaning their condition deteriorated.
“Delays to treatment can put lives at risk. Services are struggling with soaring demand, fewer beds because of social distancing, and an ongoing shortage of specialist doctors,” she said.
“The government made an ambitious commitment on waiting times, but the pandemic has set us back years. Urgent action is needed to ensure children and young people with eating disorders get the help they need when they need it.”
An estimated 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK and they can be complex and life-threatening mental illnesses. Anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates.
Disordered eating behaviours include limiting food consumption, eating large amounts of food, purging, fasting or excessive exercise in response to eating, or a combination of these.
The government made a commitment to ensure that 95% of under-19s received treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for every other case by the end of 2020-21. But the latest data shows how far the NHS is from achieving this target as a result of the pandemic.
Only 61% of patients started urgent treatment within one week in the first quarter of 2021-22, the lowest proportion since 2016-17, down from a record high of 88% in the first quarter of 2020-21.
Only 73% of patients started routine treatment within four weeks in the first quarter of 2021-22, down from 87% in the first quarter of 2020/21, according to the latest NHS England data.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for additional funding announced by the government to reach frontline services as soon as possible.
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s national director for mental health, said: “The pandemic has taken its toll on the country’s mental health and staff have responded rapidly to treat children and young people with eating disorders. Thanks to additional funding of £79m this year on top of dedicated services already rolled out in every part of the country, the NHS has treated more people with an eating disorder than ever before.”