'Hidden epidemic of eating disorders' sees dramatic rise in number of children admitted to hospital

Psychiatrists are warning they cannot treat all those who need help. Credit: PA

Hospital admissions for children with eating disorders have risen dramatically year-on-year, with psychiatrists warning services are over-stretched and unable to treat all those who need help.

NHS Digital data for England shows a rise in admissions in all parts of the country, with the Covid-19 pandemic also having an impact on inpatient treatment.

Provisional data for April to October 2021 – the most recent available – shows hospital admissions for children aged 17 and under where up 41% from 3,005 in the same period the year before.

The 2021 figure is also a 69% rise on the pre-pandemic year of 2019. From April to October 2019, there were just 2,508 admissions for those aged 17 and under.

Overall, the data shows there were 23,302 admissions for eating disorders among all age groups in the financial year 2020/21, up 13% from 20,647 admissions in 2019/20.

The 2020/21 figure is also up 21% on the 19,244 admissions among all age groups recorded in 2018/19.

Provisional data for April to October 2021 shows there were 15,941 admissions so far among all age groups, suggesting 2021/22 will be the highest year yet for people needing inpatient treatment, whatever their age.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

Dr Agnes Ayton, chair of the eating disorders faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “The hidden epidemic of eating disorders has surged during the pandemic with many community services now over-stretched and unable to treat the sheer number of people needing help.

“Early intervention is key to recovery and to preventing serious illness, which is why it’s crucial that the money announced by government urgently reaches the frontline.

“All healthcare professionals must be trained in recognising early signs of eating disorders to ensure both children and adults can access specialist support as quickly as possible”.

Eating disorders are characterised by eating too much or too little, being obsessed with weight or body shape, excessive exercise, having strict food routines and/or deliberate vomiting after eating.

The most common types of eating disorders are anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder.

The new NHS data shows that 5,941 admissions (among all ages) from April to October 2021 were for anorexia.

Meanwhile, the next biggest set of admissions, at 3,263, were for bulimia.

The latest figures also show that hospital admissions are most common in adults aged 18 to 39, with 8,298 in this age group from April to October 2021.

There are also regional differences, with the South East and South West seeing a higher number of hospital admissions than many other regions.

Tom Madders, director of campaigns at YoungMinds, said the new figures were “worrying”.

He added: “The factors behind eating disorders are often complex but the impact of the last two years has left many young people isolated, uncertain about the future and with less control over their lives.

“The earlier someone is able to access help for an eating disorder, the more likely they are to recover.

“Yet even before the pandemic many young people struggled to get timely support for their mental health and the pandemic is only deepening this crisis".

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the eating disorders charity Beat, said: “It is concerning that the number of hospital admissions for people with eating disorders is continuing to increase.

“We know that accessing quality community treatment reduces the chances of somebody needing hospital care, and so the rise in admissions suggests that people are not getting the support that they need quickly enough.

Mr Quinn said the government must invest in eating disorder services and training so that every person can access community treatment quickly.

He added: “The number of hospital admissions is only the tip of the iceberg, and there are many other people needing support for an eating disorder.

What to do if you or someone you know needs help:

  • If you are in need of urgent help for yourself or someone else, please contact 999 or the Samaritans on 116 123 if you or someone else is in immediate danger.

  • The UK's largest eating disorder charity, Beat, offers help and advice on their website or they can be contacted by phone on:

- England: 0808 801 0677- Scotland: 0808 801 0432- Wales: 0808 801 0433- Northern Ireland: 0808 801 0433

  • Anorexia & Bulimia care offers support and advice for anyone suffering from disordered eating on its website or on their helpline at 03000 111213

  • SEED Eating Disorder Support Service offer help and advice on their website and through their advice line on 01482 718130

  • First Steps ED offers help and advice on their website

  • Overeaters Anonymous runs meetings across the UK and online for those who struggle with binge eating