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Overlooked And Under Resourced: Will Eating Disorders Be Taken Seriously In Research And Practice?

10/10/2016 14:39 | Updated 14 October 2016

This week marks World Mental Health Day, an important moment of the year when mental health takes the forefront of the media and beyond, with the hope that people can talk about mental health openly. With suicide rates remaining high across the UK nations, silence of mental health remains a killer, not only in men but increasingly in young women according to new statistics launched earlier this year.

While our acceptance of mental health is undoubtedly increasing, with the number of people willing to talk to their GP about mental health according the findings of a 2014 study, we still have a long way to go. One area in which there is a certain lacking is that of eating disorders.
Eating disorders have the highest rate of mortality of any mental health problem, and prevalence figures have shown that these disorders are continuing to increase across age groups and genders. Vast investments have been promised to help attend to the needs of this underfunded area of mental health and to help save lives of those who currently do not received much needed help and support at early time points. Irrespective of this, eating disorders currently receive the least amount of research funding per pound compared to other mental health problems; the average spend on depression research is £9 million or £1.55 per adult and the average spend on eating disorders research is £0.5 million or £0.15 per adult.

We were encouraged in 2014 that there was an announcement of £150m investment to transform treatment for eating disorders. The five year aim was that this new investment would "radically reform" the treatment of children and young people with eating disorders and pave the way for new waiting time standards. These new waiting times were again promised earlier this year giving hope that eating disorders were being responded to appropriately. While both this investment and pledge to introduce waiting times is welcome, we need assurances on the timeframe we can expect as well as an acknowledgement that a one off investment in this area is not sufficient.

Achieving parity of esteem between physical and mental health is of the utmost importance, however the exclusion of eating disorders as a non-priority condition in research and policy, the lack of direction from the government to protect those experiencing these disorders demonstrates further disparities within mental health. This suggests that we have a way to go before we will achieve parity to ensure eating disorders are considered as equal to other mental health problems, and as a result are given the resources so desperately needed.

In addition to the desperate need for new funding, we more so need eating disorders to be championed by our politicians; debated in the Houses of Parliament, at the top of the agenda of those with the power to enact national change. A number of politicians have been proactive and taken the issue of super-skinny models to the heart of policy making, publically shaming the fashion industry who are part of a wider body-image problem. We need more champions like we have already seen in our government to acknowledge mental health as a core area to address, and we need these champions to move beyond the size-zero debate to take eating disorders seriously as the severe mental health disorders that they are (rather than simply a want to be thin). We need them to stand up and take ownership of this issue, ensuring the right questions are able to be asked to prompt change. To give a voice to the voiceless. The overwhelming desire to disappear, so common across those with eating disorders, is sadly being allowed to happen by the Government, and those before it. Without the necessary evidence base, where is the call to action to support this vulnerable group.

There are certainly many researchers, policy makers and advocates out there who are pushing for this change and shouting to ensure that eating disorders remain on the agenda of mental health. However, there is a wider need for this debate and conversation to be brought wider into society and to develop a conversation in which eating disorders become associated with mental health in a way they currently aren't. Yes, we need to break the stigma around common mental health problems, but we also need to break the stigma more widely to ensure parity within mental health.

Correction: This blog previously stated that NatCen's Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey (APMS) overlooked data on eating disorders. In fact, the APMS does collect additional data on eating disorders.

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