The NHS can no longer treat every child with an eating disorder, a leading psychiatrist has warned, as “worrying” figures reveal hospital admissions have risen 41% in a year.
A dramatic surge in cases during the pandemic has left already struggling community services overstretched with many unable to care for everyone who requires help, experts said.
NHS Digital data for England shows a sharp rise in admissions in every area of the country. The provisional data for April to October 2021 – the most recent available – shows there were 4,238 hospital admissions for children aged 17 and under, up 41% from 3,005 in the same period the year before.
The 2021 figure is also a 69% rise on the pre-pandemic year of 2019. From April to October 2019, there were 2,508 admissions for those aged 17 and under.
Charities said the fast rising number of hospital admissions was “only the tip of the iceberg”, with thousands more children needing support for eating disorders.
Dr Agnes Ayton, the chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The hidden epidemic of eating disorders has surged during the pandemic, with many community services now overstretched and unable to treat the sheer number of people needing help. We are at the point where we cannot afford to let this go on any longer.
“Early intervention is key to recovery and to preventing serious illness, which is why it’s crucial that the money announced by government urgently reaches the frontline. The government must also deliver a workforce plan to tackle the shortages in eating disorder services so that they have enough staff to treat everyone who needs help.”
Tom Madders, the director of campaigns at YoungMinds, said the figures were “worrying” and said the impact of the last two years had “left many young people isolated, uncertain about the future and with less control over their lives”.
The Guardian reported last September how record numbers of children and young people were seeking access to NHS mental health services, as the devastating toll of the pandemic was revealed in a new analysis. In just three months, nearly 200,000 young people were referred to mental health services – almost double pre-pandemic levels, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Madders said many young people had struggled to get “timely support” for their mental health before the pandemic and the last two years had deepened the crisis.
“We know the NHS is under increasing pressure and staff are working extremely hard to support those that need it, but it’s clear the government must redouble its efforts and ensure that it improves access to NHS services,” he added. “It’s also crucial that early support is available for young people in their local communities, which is why we want to see the government invest in a network of early support hubs.”
Overall, the data shows there were 23,302 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in the financial year 2020-21, up 13% from 20,647 admissions in 2019-20. The 2020-21 figure is also up 21% on the 19,244 admissions among all age groups recorded in 2018-19.
Provisional data for April to October 2021 shows there were 15,941 admissions so far among all age groups, suggesting 2021-22 will be the highest year yet for people needing inpatient treatment, whatever their age.
The new NHS data shows that 5,941 admissions among all ages from April to October 2021 were for anorexia. The next biggest set of admissions, at 3,263, were for bulimia.
Hospital admissions are most common in adults aged 18 to 39, the figures show, with 8,298 in this age group from April to October 2021.
There are also regional differences, with a higher number of hospital admissions in the south-east and south-west than in many other regions.
Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs at the eating disorders charity Beat, said: “It is concerning that the number of hospital admissions for people with eating disorders is continuing to increase.
“We know that accessing quality community treatment reduces the chances of somebody needing hospital care, and so the rise in admissions suggests that people are not getting the support that they need quickly enough.”
Quinn said the pandemic had had a “devastating impact” on people with eating disorders, which had contributed to the rise in the number of people needing support. He added: “The number of hospital admissions is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other people needing support for an eating disorder.”
He urged ministers to publish data about the number of people waiting for eating disorder treatment, in order to “better understand” the scale of demand.