Record number of children and young people waiting for eating disorder treatment, as soaring demand overwhelms services

Press release
18 August 2021
  • The number of under-19s waiting for urgent treatment has more than tripled during the pandemic, while the number waiting for routine treatment has more than quadrupled  
  • The number of under-19s receiving urgent and routine treatment has also reached record levels 
  • The Royal College of Psychiatrists is calling for additional funding announced by government to reach frontline services as soon as possible 

The number of under-19s waiting for eating disorder treatment has reached record levels as services are struggling to provide timely treatment in the face of overwhelming demand, says the Royal College of Psychiatrists. 

New 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, a year on from the start of the pandemic: 

  • 207 patients were waiting for urgent treatment, up from 56 at the same time last year (270% increase). 
  • 1,832 patients were waiting for routine treatment, up from 441 at the same time last year (315% increase). 
  • 852 patients received urgent treatment, compared to 328 in the first quarter of 2020/21 (160% increase). 
  • 2,600 patients received routine treatment, compared to 1,347 in the first quarter of 2020/21 (93% increase). 
An estimated 1.25 million people have an eating disorder in the UK. Eating disorders do not discriminate and can affect anyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status. 

Disordered eating behaviours include limiting food consumption, eating very large amounts of food, purging, fasting or excessive exercise in response to eating, or a combination of these. 

Dr Agnes Ayton, Chair of the Faculty of Eating Disorders Psychiatry, at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on children and young people with disruption to their schooling, social lives and home lives. Many young people have not received support early enough, causing their eating disorders to become much worse and harder to treat. 
“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. 

“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.”  

Eating disorders are complex and life-threatening mental illnesses. Anorexia has one of the highest mortality rates of any mental illness. 

Despite this, eating disorders remain poorly understood. They are a mental illness, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, and full recovery is possible with access to the right specialist help and treatment. 

The Government made a commitment to ensure that 95% of under-19s receive treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for every other case by the end of 2020/21. The latest data shows just 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. 

The data on Children and Young People with an Eating Disorder Waiting Times for Q1 2021/22 was published by NHS England and Improvement on 12 August.

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