Students with eating disorders are missing up to five years of university, while many see their condition deteriorate as they are being failed by the NHS, a mental health charity has warned.
Young people are "falling through the gap" as they are not being provided with effective care or support during their transition to university. Many are left to "join up the dots" themselves, while parents are forced to act as care workers for their children, according to a new report.
Student Minds, who published its University Challenge research on Monday, said the NHS is not meeting its duty of care with many students facing a "traumatic.. complicated and unsatisfactory process".
Many patients in need of treatment are being pushed to the bottom of GP waiting lists after missing appointments due to exams or moving back home during the holidays. One student said the waiting period reinforced their belief that they were not sick enough to need help and made them feel they "wouldn't ever be taken seriously, so there was no point in bothering".
"In the past five years I have known six able, motivated and highly driven students drop out of their studies because of the gap in care between the two locations where they spend an almost equal amount of time in these crucial 4 years.”
Only 13% of the professionals surveyed by Student Minds felt they could support the physical health of a student with an eating disorder within their local health trust while only 26% felt they could effectively support the mental health of a student with an eating disorder.
Students found it difficult to access care when they were registered with GPs as temporary residents - which is often the case as they spend their time between university and family homes. One student with mental health issues said: "It frustrates my family and I so much that despite the best efforts of some very supportive professionals, the rules regarding referrals from out of area and waiting lists can have such a devastating impact on those with eating disorders."
"I have had to take five years in total out of university due to my eating disorder … I have experienced great difficulties in transferring my care and getting enough support which I am certain severely impacted my mental health. If I had received help earlier I would maybe be further into recovery and enjoying a better quality of life."
- University student
In the UK, 1.6m people are affected by an eating disorder, which generally develop in adolescence and early adulthood - around the time students move to higher or future education. According to previous research, students at university develop eating disorders at a greater rate than the general population.
Although recovery is possible, fewer than 50% of adults suffering from Anorexia Nervosa recover.
According to the mental health charity, current efforts by the NHS to support students are "limited". Of the students surveyed, more than 70% of those who had spoken to their GP about their disorder were "concerned" about going to see their doctor. Worries included whether their GP would understand them and take their problems seriously and whether confidentiality would be respected.
"There is almost always a waiting time to access specialist services," the report notes. "Thus, in the process of moving from home to university a substantive gap in care provision is created.
"All too often, a student’s health will deteriorate during this gap in care provision. The result being, that by the time they see the new specialist service, their eating disorder is more severe and harder to treat.
"Case coordination often falls to the family or the individual themselves. This places increased stress on the person and their family and creates a substantial gap in care for a young adult to navigate."
The report adds university mental health advisors say many students arrive at university without care plans in place.
"Without clear communication and care plans it is far too easy for students to ‘fall between the gaps’ of care," it continues.
“My daughter is in her first semester of her first year at university…our experience is a disjointed, complicated, stressful and timely one, with my observation that I have provided the role of case worker to help join up the dots, communicate and facilitate her best use of the help that's out there. I can see how a sufferer can very easily slip through the net without this support and motivation."
Students are often "very aware" of the difficulties which may arise if they register with a new doctor at university and so many decide not to do so at all. A quarter of students surveyed said they had never registered with a GP while studying away from home, meaning their mental and physical health is not monitored for at least 27 weeks of the year.
"Some students choose to travel between home and university to visit their GP or specialist service," the report says. "This may result in missing lectures and university events, resulting in poorer grades, impaired future job prospects and additional stress. For many however, financial constraints mean this is not an option, even if it would result in more consistent care."
"Transitions between home and university were also the most difficult times for me, when I was most likely to relapse irrespective of the difficulties in transitioning between treatment teams - so it seems like a really important point to address.”
Student Minds is arguing for a national register with contacts of GPs, specialist services, university mental health advisors and support groups so as to alleviate the difficulties faced when trying to work out who to pass information to.
Useful websites and helplines:
Samaritans, open 24 hours a day, on 08457 90 90 90
Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
Students Against Depression, a website by students, for students.
HopeLine runs a confidential advice helpline if you are a young person at risk of suicide or are worried about a young person at risk of suicide. Mon-Fri 10-5pm and 7pm-10pm. Weekends 2pm-5pm on 0800 068 41 41
Student Minds Can be contacted on email firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone 01865 264168