Long waits for treatment can often lead to more hospital admissions for eating disorders, reports ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan
The Royal College of Psychiatrists is so alarmed by the rise in people hospitalised with eating disorders it is issuing new guidelines to try and save lives.
It says the signs someone is dangerously ill can be easily missed by doctors and nurses.
In the past five years hospital admissions for people with illnesses like bulimia and anorexia have jumped by 84% in England, with a stark rise among boys and young men.
There were 11,049 more admissions for illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia in 2020/21 than in 2015/16, with 24,268 admissions across England in total. Admissions in children and young people rose from 3,541 to 6,713, with a 35% increase in the last year alone, according to the analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP).
A particularly notable rise in admissions – 128% – was recorded in boys and young men, from 280 hospital admissions in 2015/16 to 637 in 2020/2021.
Mental health charities have warned the Covid-19 pandemic worsened the problem of eating disorders among young people, with isolation harming mental health as access to many physical services was curtailed.
One in five deaths of people with anorexia are due to suicide, while there are high rates of self-harm and depression with all eating disorders.
The RCP has launched new guidelines to help health professionals identify people whose eating disorders have become life-threatening and get them the right care.
It recommends, among other suggestions, that patients who require admission to medical or pediatric wards should be seen by a team with experience of treating eating disorders.
GPS, hospitals and specialists are also recommended to examine a person's nutritional status and conduct blood tests while carrying out physical risk assessments.
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. Even when seriously unwell, people with eating disorders can seem healthy, with normal blood tests. For example, somebody with anorexia can have dangerously low levels of electrolytes like potassium that are not reflected in blood tests.
Patients with bulimia can also have severe electrolyte disturbances and stomach problems but can be a normal weight or overweight.
Experts have said the RCP's medical emergencies in eating disorders guidance will help to dispel myths surrounding eating disorders.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, who chaired the development of the new guidelines, said that full recovery from the disorders is possible if they are spotted and treated early.
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“They are mental health disorders, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, and we shouldn’t underestimate how serious they are," she said. “Even though anorexia nervosa is often referred to as the deadliest mental health condition, most deaths are preventable with early treatment and support. “They remain poorly understood with devastating consequences for thousands of patients and their families," Dr Nicholls added. An NHS spokesperson said: “Demand for services has increased significantly over the pandemic, and with the NHS treating a third more children and young people than it did two years ago, it is important that all healthcare professionals are supported to better understand and respond to signs that someone is seriously ill with an eating disorder. “Parents can also find information on potential symptoms, such as binge eating, feeling guilty after eating, negative self-image, and other signs of a potential eating disorder on the NHS website, and they should not hesitate to contact the NHS if they or their child need support.”
Who to contact if you or someone you know needs help:
Beat operates helplines that are open 365 days a year from 9am–midnight during the week, and 4pm–midnight on weekends and bank holidays. Talk one-to-one with a Beat professional on their secure instant messaging service or email firstname.lastname@example.org
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