Children’s lives put at risk due to waits for eating disorder care, say experts

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Children and young people’s lives are being put at risk due to the rising numbers waiting for “overstretched and underfunded” eating disorder services, experts have said.

New data has shown that the number of children and young people waiting for urgent treatment for eating disorders has hit a record high.

Some 249 under-19s suffering illnesses such as anorexia and bulimia were on the waiting list at the end of March, up from 130 the same time last year.

The number waiting more than 12 weeks for urgent treatment stood at 94, up from just 13 at the end of March 2021.

The figures, which have been published by NHS England, also show that 1,697 under-19s were waiting for routine care for eating disorders, up year-on-year from 1,404.

But this was down slightly from a record 1,918 at the end of December.

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorder charity, Beat, said it was “deeply concerning” that children and young people with an eating disorder were waiting longer for NHS treatment than ever before.

He added: “NHS staff have been working incredibly hard to support their patients, and more children and young people have started eating disorder treatment than ever before.

“This is putting young people’s lives at risk.

“Accessing quality treatment as soon as possible leads to the best chance of recovery from an eating disorder, and it is extremely worrying that both urgent and routine cases are having to wait longer for NHS treatment.”

Beat and mental health charity, Mind, are calling on the Government to develop “urgently” a fully-funded mental health recovery plan, which must also address staffing gaps.

Sophie Corlett, director of external affairs at Mind, said: “After years of historic underfunding of mental health services, coupled with the mental health toll of a global pandemic and cost of living crisis, we must see urgent investment in NHS mental health services, so that everyone who needs it can access timely treatment.

“The recently announced 10-year-plan must also set out how the UK Government intends to identify and tackle the many causes of poor mental health, including problems with housing, employment, finances and benefits.

“Without urgent support and investment, our mental health care system will continue not just to fail adults when they need help most, but children too, with potentially fatal consequences.”

The NHS England data also show that the longest waiting lists were in the south west, with 123 children and young people waiting for urgent eating disorder care and 376 for routine treatment at the end of March.

This compares to five under-19s in the north west waiting for urgent treatment and 164 for routine care in the Midlands.

Meanwhile, the figures show that the number of under-19s starting urgent treatment dropped from 719 from January to March 2021 to 590 during the same months this year.

Routine cases starting treatment fell from 2,421 to 2,396 over the same period.

However, the numbers starting treatment for both urgent and routine cases are still much higher than before the pandemic.

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

The target was knocked off course by the pandemic, however.

The data shows that just 62% of patients started urgent treatment within a week in the fourth quarter of 2021-22, up slightly from the previous three months but well below the record high of 88% in the first quarter of 2020-21.

Some 64% of patients started routine treatment within four weeks in the fourth quarter of 2021-22, the lowest on record and down from a peak of 90% in the second quarter of 2020-21.

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the Faculty of Eating Disorders Psychiatry at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said that, due to the pandemic, many young people did not receive support early enough which could have led to their eating disorders becoming worse and harder to treat.

She added: “Delays to treatment can put lives at risk. Services are struggling with soaring demand, 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.”

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