Eating disorders in children at crisis point, as waiting lists for routine care reach record levels

Press release
10 February 2022

The number of under-19s waiting for routine eating disorder treatment has reached record levels despite services treating fewer people than at the same point last year, says the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

New NHS data analysed by the Royal College of Psychiatrists shows that the number of under-19s waiting for routine treatment have reached record levels while those waiting for urgent care is the second-highest on record. 

The analysis also found that while numbers receiving treatment fell compared to last year, services are treating many more people than before the pandemic. 

At the end of the 3rd quarter (October – December) of 2021/22:

  • 1,918 patients were waiting for routine treatment, the highest on record, and up from 1,216 at the same time last year (57.7% increase).
  • 203 patients were waiting for urgent treatment, the second-highest on record, and up from 86 at the same time last year (136% increase).
  • 2,460 people received routine treatment, down from 2,554 at the same time last year (3.7% decrease), but also up from 1,812 two years earlier (35.8% increase).
  • 649 received urgent treatment, down from 700 at the same time last year (7.3% decrease), but also up from 377 two years ago (72.1% 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 eating disorders crisis engulfing our children and young people shows no signs of letting up. 

“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.” 

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 59.0% of patients started urgent treatment within one week in the third quarter of 2021/22, the lowest proportion since the second quarter of 2016/17 and down from a record high of 88% in the first quarter of 2020/21.
  • Only 66.4% of patients started routine treatment within four weeks in the third quarter of 2021/22, the third lowest on record and down from 90% in the second quarter of 2020/21.

Dr Elaine Lockhart, Chair of the Child and Adolescent faculty, at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said:

“The pandemic has affected so many of our lives, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that children and young people are bearing the brunt. 

“Record numbers are being referred to mental health services and the number needing help from eating disorder services continues to reach unprecedented levels. 

“The knock-on effect could be devastating as these seriously ill children will need to be prioritised by CAMHS which effect our ability to treat others needing help with other illnesses. 

“Early intervention is key to recovery from any mental illness. The government must do all it can to ensure all children and young people have early access to the support they need. Schools have a critical role to play in this and children’s mental health services must be properly funded and staffed.”

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 data on Children and Young People with an Eating Disorder Waiting Times for Quarter 3 in 2021/22 was published by NHS England and Improvement on February 10th 2022. 

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