‘Explosion’ in children and young people seeking help with eating disorders, as cost of pandemic on mental health is laid bare

Thousands of children and young people risk missing out on help for eating disorder unless the government commits to ongoing specialist funding.

13 May 2022

Thousands of children and young people risk continuing to miss out on the specialist help they urgently need for their eating disorders unless the government commits to ongoing specialist funding.  

NHS mental health trust leaders have sounded the alarm warning that they are treating double the numbers of children with eating disorders who need urgent care now than before the pandemic. 

To ensure that children and young people with eating disorders can access the care they need the NHS Confederation’s mental health network is calling for additional funding to the tune of £12m over the next two years in order to get children and young people’s eating disorder services back on track.   

In 2020/21 the government was explicit in its acknowledgement of the need for extra investment in children and young people’s mental health services, allocating an additional £79m, including around £12m for eating disorder services. Yet despite demand showing no sign of abating no further monies have been allocated to a service struggling to keep up with rising need.

There has been a 72% increase in children and teenagers being referred for urgent support for eating disorders over the last two years, and waiting times continue to rise. The most recent statistics from NHS Digital show that 249 children and young people urgently needing support for eating disorders are still waiting, and 94 are waiting more than 12 weeks.  The number of children and young people with less severe needs waiting for support for eating disorders is even higher at 1,697, with 662 waiting more than 12 weeks.

Mental health leaders want to see a clear commitment to continued investment in eating disorder services over the next two years, coupled with a comprehensive package of support which includes early intervention and clear pathways of care for children not yet ill enough to require hospitalization or while waiting to access eating disorder services. One chair of a mental health trust in London said that demand for eating disorder services in their patch had increased by 150 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.

Without this, they warn that children will face longer waits for their treatment. Their mental and physical health will deteriorate, and it is more likely their eating disorder will remain with them into adulthood.

NHS mental health leaders want to see the same level of attention paid to children and young people’s mental health, especially those with eating disorders where mortality is highest, as the Government is giving to addressing the adult elective care backlog where additional investment has ensured that the number of people waiting two years or more for treatment has dropped by a third in the last two months.

This needs to run alongside a further commitment to roll out mental health support teams in schools and colleges nationwide, with the Government’s target of 25% access increased to 100% blanket coverage so that every school and college has a support team in place. 

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said:  

“The explosion in the numbers of children and young people seeking and needing treatment for eating disorders is really concerning and it is very worrying that this could just be the tip of the iceberg as we start to uncover what the pandemic has meant for their mental health over the past two years.  

“We know that an estimated 1.5 million children and teenagers will need new or additional support for their mental health over the next three to five years and this includes seeking treatment for eating disorders. 

“While our members are doing all they can to provide these specialist services, we do need to see an urgent plan and continued investment to allow the NHS to get back on track and give these most vulnerable of young people the treatment and care they need as quickly and effectively as possible.”  

Ifti Majid, chair of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network and chief executive of Derbyshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, said:  

“Specialist eating disorder services for children and young people are undoubtedly under strain. The numbers seeking treatment have gone through the roof following the intense and often very difficult situations that many of our country’s children and teenagers have experienced over the last two years.  

We need to ensure that there is adequate funding, early intervention services and wraparound pathways of care available to those that need it.” 

Professor Sandeep Ranote, consultant paediatric psychiatrist and mental health lead for Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership, said 

“Whilst organisations are rolling out innovative ideas and using best practice including in Greater Manchester, where we are redesigning how we deliver services in an integrated way across the whole system to improve responsiveness and care, and support those on waiting lists to try and meet the increasing demand, the numbers don’t lie.  

“However, there isn't one factor leading to the huge rise in demand. Many children and young people experienced anxiety related to lockdowns, school closures, loss of structure and peer group activities, loneliness and challenging public messaging, which have all contributed to this significant increase.

“Demand is sky high across the country and these are serious life-threatening illnesses, so in order for the integrated care systems to meet this need, we need to see a keen focus on the further development of eating disorder services.”