Waiting list for children needing help with eating disorders hits record level

Experts are treating more children than before the pandemic but demand for appointments has risen.

10 February 2022

The number of children needing help for eating disorders is at “crisis point”, with waiting lists in England at record levels, according to analysis of new figures.

Data published on Thursday by NHS England shows growing waiting lists for those under 19 suffering illnesses including anorexia and bulimia.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists, which analysed the data, said delays to treatment risked lives and called for earlier intervention to help youngsters recover.

Experts are treating more children than before the pandemic but demand has risen.

The new figures for October to December show 1,918 patients were waiting for routine treatment, the highest on record.

Some 203 patients were also waiting for urgent treatment, the second highest on record.

Overall, 2,460 people received routine treatment over the period, down from 2,554 at the same time last year, but up from 1,812 two years earlier (36% increase).

Meanwhile, 649 received urgent treatment, down from 700 at the same time last year, but up from 377 two years ago (72% increase).

Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwoman 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.

However, this target has been knocked off course by the pandemic.

The data shows that just 59% 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.

Some 66% 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, chairwoman 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.”

Tom Quinn, director of external affairs at the charity Beat, said: “We know that the pandemic has had an enormous impact on people affected by eating disorders, with increased isolation and anxiety being major factors, and that more young people have been seeking help for an eating disorder during the past two years.

“We know that frontline staff are working tirelessly to help those in need, but they are not able to cope with the ever-growing scale of demand.

“The waiting list is continuing to grow, with very long waiting times becoming much more common than before the pandemic.”

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