Surge in eating disorder cases among children

Surge in eating disorder cases among children: Catastrophic effect of lockdown on the young is laid bare by figures showing a rise in hospital admissions

  • Figures show a surge in hospital admissions for eating disorders since lockdown
  • Admissions in the last nine months were a third higher compared to the previous
  • In just one month they were up by 80% with girls aged 15 to 16 worst affected

The catastrophic effect of lockdown on children has been laid bare by figures showing a surge in hospital admissions for eating disorders.

They reveal admissions in the last nine months were a third higher compared to the previous year. In one month they were up by 80 per cent.

Girls aged 15 and 16 were the worst affected. Experts also warned that children were arriving in hospital in a more severe and complex state, partly because they hadn’t been picked up sooner by GPs or teachers.

Figures obtained by the Mail from NHS Digital show there were 2,292 admissions for youngsters aged ten to 18 with eating disorders between April last year and January, mostly suffering from anorexia and bulimia.

This was up by 32 per cent from the 1,733 admissions recorded between April 2019 and January 2020. 

Hospital admissions in the last nine months were a third higher compared to the previous year. In one month they were up by 80 per cent. Picture: Stock

But in November, admissions were 79 per cent higher compared to the same month the previous year while in October they were up by 59 per cent.

The figures represent the first official dataset of the impact of the pandemic on eating disorders and they back up anecdotal evidence from doctors and charities.

One charity, Beat, said calls to its helpline had risen by 300 per cent since the start of the pandemic while the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said children were suffering more severe and complex illnesses.

Dr Karen Street, the College’s officer for mental health and a paediatrician specialising in eating disorders, said: ‘We’ve seen a significant increase over the last year both in the numbers, and the complexity and severity, of eating disorders.

‘We’re seeing the effects of lockdown in children and losing goals – both educational in terms of GCSEs and A-levels and also losing their own motivational goals [such as] interests in sport or drama. They’ve not seen their friends and they’ve spent a lot of time on social media and they’ve become very self-critical with exercise and eating healthily.’

She said these factors were a ‘perfect storm’ for eating disorders, adding: ‘We’re seeing a lot of young people where consultations with the GP have been by telephone only. Obviously it’s harder to see how unwell they’re becoming. Those who lost their GCSEs have been a particularly badly affected group.’

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at Beat, said: ‘We’ve heard from those using our services about the serious harm the pandemic has caused, preventing people from being with their vital support networks or keeping to the routines that allow them to manage their eating disorder.

The figures represent the first official dataset of the impact of the pandemic on eating disorders and they back up anecdotal evidence from doctors and charities. Picture: Stock

‘Many people have mentioned developing symptoms for the first time or finding themselves slipping back into old thoughts and behaviours.’

He said calls to the charity’s helpline had increased by 300 per cent between last February and March, when they reached a record level. NHS Digital’s figures also show that girls aged 15 and 16 were the worst affected, accounting for 37 per cent of admissions among children between last April and January.

Dr Lorna Richards, a consultant psychiatrist at the Priory, who has been involved in the development of NHS national guidelines and policy around eating disorders, said: ‘One of the consequences of social isolation is that it has created space for eating disordered thoughts and behaviours to thrive. 

‘Without life’s distractions, young people have found themselves stuck with their own intensifying thoughts. For some, the focus on eating and weight control becomes a way of coping with their anxiety and stress.’

Separately, a young woman told MPs yesterday she was apparently ‘not thin enough’ for NHS treatment while in the grip of anorexia.

Hope, who did not give her surname, advocates for people with eating disorders. She told the Commons health and social care committee that inadequate NHS services, including little practical help from her GP, left her suffering for years with anorexia.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s mental health director, said: ‘The last year has taken its toll on the country’s mental health, particularly on our young people, and our staff have responded rapidly to support the increasing numbers coming forward, including more children and young people with eating disorders.’

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