For Too Many Young People, Treatment For Eating Disorders Is A Postcode Lottery

If mental health services are too often the poor relation of our NHS, then eating disorders may be the Cinderella of psychiatric illnesses. This has to change.
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Eating disorders are devastating illnesses that carry the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Many people experience them, and many more have a family member, friend or colleague who is suffering.

According to eating disorder charity Beat, around 1.25million people in the UK have an eating disorder, yet too often eating disorders are shrouded in stigma – so this Mental Health Awareness Week, I’m focusing on improving awareness and exploring ways that we can better support those who are suffering from this serious psychiatric condition.

Last week I met with the brilliant Hope Virgo, who, on seeking treatment for anorexia, was told she wasn’t thin enough for treatment. Now, having gained the support of some 70,000 people for her petition for the body mass index to be disregarded by clinicians when diagnosing eating disorders, I’m proud to be supporting her calls for change, including a government review of eating disorder guidance.

This is truly incredible campaigning for a woman who was left feeling isolated and alone by the injustice of our broken mental health services.

Sadly, Hope is far from alone in her experience of accessing support and treatment for eating disorders. Much more needs to be done to reduce the barriers to people seeking help in the first place and then make sure that the help is readily available.

The government’s commitment that by 2020, 95% of children and young people referred with an eating disorder will be seen within one month – or one week if it is diagnosed as urgent – is very welcome.

Now just a matter of months away, I am concerned that this will not be achieved or, even worse, that it will become another ‘fudge’ of figures whereby a patient gets a first appointment within the timescale, but any follow-up and effective treatment plans are still many months after referral.

What’s more, while this is some level of progress for children and young people, there are still no clear plans for adults with eating disorders.

One local young woman, whose family contacted me, was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 16-years-old.

Due to the severity of her illness she was admitted to hospital for a lengthy stretch and, on release from hospital, she was attending fortnightly appointments with an eating disorder specialist.

As her recovery was going well, my constituent decided that she would like to take up the offer of a university place in Manchester – seeing this as a positive step in her healing and a way of getting on with her life.

The local NHS trust that delivers mental health services in my area informed her that she would have to transfer over to Manchester’s adult services. Neither my constituent nor her family thought too much about this, as it wasn’t raised in such a way that they could foresee any issues.

However, five months on my constituent was still waiting for the handover to be completed and, sadly, had suffered a serious relapse. Even in need of urgent in-patient care, she was made to wait a fortnight for a bed to become available.

Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident. And when I recounted this terrible case to representatives of the GMC last week, they all too easily recognised the problems for many university students associated with the transfer of patients out of area and from youth to adult services.

With no specific waiting time targets for adult eating disorders and poorly-funded mental health services, many over-stretched mental health trusts are not able to put the necessary resources into these vital services.

Treatment availability has become a hideous postcode lottery, with service access and levels of funding spent varying widely from one area to the next. As a result, continuity of care is worryingly uncertain.

In short, there is much that can be done to improve frontline eating disorder services to ensure they are there for people when they need them.

If mental health services are too often the poor relation of our NHS, then eating disorders may be the Cinderella of psychiatric illnesses. This has to change.

It is my hope that as public understanding of these serious illnesses improves, there will be a growing respect for what they are – mental illnesses that kill – and eating disorder services will receive the attention they need. Ultimately, it’s to be hoped that the devastation that is caused to sufferers and their families may be avoided.

Proper investment is essential, as is early diagnosis and fast access to the right treatments. This will help prevent people becoming more unwell, save the NHS money, prevent hospital admissions and save lives. This is what I’ve been calling for in Parliament, and I’ll keep doing my utmost to hold the government to account.

Paula Sherriff is the Labour MP for Dewsbury


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