Extra investment needed to tackle surge in children and young people seeking support for eating disorders

Thousands of children and young people risk missing out on the help they need for their eating disorders

2 March 2023

Without a commitment for ongoing specialist funding, thousands of children and young people risk missing out on the help they need for their eating disorder.

The continuing effects of the cost-of-living crisis coupled with the continued fallout from the pandemic have seen a doubling in the numbers of children with eating disorders who need urgent care, NHS leaders have warned.   

Back 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 £79 million, including around £12 million for eating disorder services. However, despite demand increasing, no further funding has been allocated to a service struggling to keep up with the rising need. The NHS Confederation’s mental health network (MHN) is calling for the government to provide at least an additional £12million of funding over the next year to ensure children and young people who need treatment from specialist eating disorder services can access the support they need as quickly as possible.  

This will need to run alongside a further commitment to roll out mental health support teams in schools and colleges nationwide to provide preventative support and opportunities for early intervention. In doing so, health leaders are calling for the government to increase its target of 15-25 per cent access to 100 per cent blanket coverage and ensure that mental health support teams are brought in rapidly.

Estimates show that in the next three to five years, 1.5 million children and teenagers will need new or additional support for their mental health, including seeking treatment for eating disorders.  The last two years have seen a near three quarter fold increase in children and teenagers being referred for urgent support for eating disorders, at a time when mental health services have seen spiralling demand and increased waiting times across the board.

Failing to address mental health issues in childhood often leads to ongoing issues in adulthood. Mental health leaders want to see a clear commitment to continued investment in eating disorder services over the next year, coupled with a comprehensive package of support which includes early intervention and clear pathways of care for children not yet meeting the threshold for hospitalisation or waiting to access services.  

In order for the government to fulfil its ambitions of levelling up mental health, mental health trusts are calling for the government to provide mental health services with long-term and sustained investment to help meet demand which could mean an extra £900 million per year by 2024-25. Amongst many other aspects, this type of funding will need to address the gaping holes in the workforce, which are causing added strains on overworked staff and has led to some units being understaffed, causing delays in children and adults getting the treatment they need.

The government has invested in and is starting to transform children and young people’s eating disorder services and wider mental health support alongside setting up mental health support teams in schools, but it needs to go further and faster.  Without any further investment in children and young adult mental health services, members warn that children will continue to face unacceptable long waits for treatment. Their mental and physical health will deteriorate, and it is more likely their eating disorder will remain with them into adulthood.

Sean Duggan OBE, chief executive of the NHS Confederation’s mental health network said:   

“Mental health leaders and their staff have been working hard despite extensive staff shortages to ensure patients and young people get the care they need as safely and as quickly as possible. However, the rise in children and young people seeking and needing treatment for eating disorders is extremely concerning and we have been calling for more investment in specialist treatment for months. The figures prove that there is no escaping the fact that more needs to be done.  

“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.  

“Our members are doing all they can to provide these specialist services. However, we desperately need to see an urgent plan and continued investment to allow the NHS to get back on track, especially as we come out of the toughest winter for decades, while also giving the most vulnerable of young people the treatment and care they need as quickly and effectively as possible.  

“The key aspect of improving mental health care for children is in preventative services, especially if we want to reduce demand for mental health units and ensure people get the care they need before it’s too late.  The more the government overlooks the pressures and demand in mental health, the bigger the crisis becomes both for people who are already in desperate need of help and for the service itself.”

Professor Sandeep Ranote, consultant paediatric psychiatrist and Medical Executive Lead for mental health, NHS Greater Manchester Integrated Care, said:   

“In Greater Manchester, organisations and services are continuously thinking of new ways to respond to the increasing demand from children and young adults, such as delivering services in an integrated way across the whole system to improve waiting times and care. However, we can not avoid or fully combat these increasing numbers, without there being a focus on the further development of eating disorder services.

“Coming out of the pandemic many children and young people are experiencing anxiety related to lockdowns, school closures, loss of structure and peer group activities, loneliness, as well as this, the detrimental effect of the cost of living crisis has contributed to the surge in eating disorders.  

“Demand continues to be at an all-time high, 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.”

Dr Phil Moore, GP and chair of the mental health network Mental Health, Learning Disability and Autism System Group, said:

“There is no avoiding the fact that specialist eating disorder services for children and young people are under huge strain.  

“The numbers of people seeking treatment have continued to rise, as the country is in the midst of a cost of living crisis, causing a domino effect on young children and adults, as food prices continue to sky rocket.  

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