A shortage of beds for severely unwell eating-disorder patients has forced the NHS to send more than 100 women from England to hospitals in Scotland for treatment since 2017.
The cost of relocating patients, which included under-18s, was more than £10m, with one patient staying more than a year in hospital, costing close to £250,000.
The Guardian spoke to families who warned of the toll of travelling hundreds of miles to see unwell relatives. One mother said she had spent hundreds on petrol to visit her daughter and had slept on the hospital floor after being unable to get a hotel.
Experts say that not being close to family and friends can hinder the recovery of many people with mental health problems, as they are isolated from their support network.
Campaigners have warned of a crisis as demand for treatment among those experiencing anorexia and bulimia has “skyrocketed” since the start of the pandemic. Newly released data shows admissions up 84% in five years.
The limited capacity of specialist services means that patients are being sent hundreds of miles from their local area to get help. An investigation by the Guardian using the Freedom of Information Act has found:
The cost of these placements, from April 2017 to December 2019, was £10.136m.
The maximum length of stay for a single patient in 2019 was 395 days, at a cost of £214,000. In previous years a patient stayed almost two years (639 days), costing £340,000.
The patients sent were all female and a number of them were under 18, although the exact number is unclear because the NHS withheld this information, saying it could allow the identification of patients.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that services have been “historically underfunded” and that demand has soared since 2019. “The limited capacity of specialist services and chronic workforce shortages mean that patients are not receiving the vital care they need,” said Dr Agnes Ayton, the chair of the eating-disorders faculty.
She said vulnerable patients were waiting “long periods” and travelling “hundreds of miles from their home” to get help, a situation she described as “entirely unjustifiable”.
She added: “This would not be acceptable in any other part of the NHS and should not be acceptable in services that address mental health either.”
Hope Virgo, an author, mental health campaigner and eating disorder survivor, said: “If someone broke their leg and was sent to a hospital on the other side of the city there would be a public outcry, yet people with eating disorders are being sent all over the country, and as far, in some cases, as Scotland to get support.”
She warned of the impact of taking people away from their family, friends and direct support. “Not only does this put huge strain on the individual with the eating disorder, but the entire family unit,” she said. “Families travelling miles to try and keep some sense of normality. It is heartbreaking that in 2022 the lack of support for those affected by eating disorders has become so normalised.”
Tom Quinn, the director of external affairs for Beat, the largest eating-disorders charity in the UK, said it was “concerning” that people with eating disorders could not get help in their own country.
“We know from the people we support that being sent for eating-disorder treatment away from home can be incredibly distressing … being away from home can also make the transition after coming out of hospital much more challenging and increase the risk of relapse,” he said.
“While the government provided an extra £11m in 2019-20 for children and young people eating-disorder services in comparison [with] 2018-19, in many parts of England this was not all spent, and in some areas, less was spent than the previous year.”
An NHS spokesperson said that although demand for services had increased significantly during the pandemic, “thanks to significant investment in community mental health services through our long term plan, we are able to treat more people with eating disorders than ever before – helping to reduce demand for inpatient services”.