At a time of year when so much of our focus has been on food, we should pause to consider those whose relationship with what they eat is a serious concern.
Our understanding has developed about the various forms of mental illness which can be grouped under the umbrella term 'eating disorders'. We are more aware, as a society, of the warning signs when someone might be developing an eating disorder. Parents, in particular, know to keep an eye on their children's patterns of eating and relationship with food.
Eating disorders are often blamed on society's obsession with skinny models and stylised versions of what counts as 'beautiful'. The role of movies, music and fashion all play an insidious part in shaping an unrealistic impression in the minds of youngsters.
Yet the causes of eating disorders are more complex than movies and models. Eating disorders are triggered by a range of factors, including family history, obsessive personality traits, low self-esteem and substance misuse. To be adequately treated, they require close supervision and expert guidance.
The sad fact is that at a time when eating disorders are becoming a more noticeable problem in our society, they have not been given the focus and attention they need. In recent years, hospital admissions for eating disorders have increased year on year and a ChildLine survey found that the number of children and teenagers seeking help for an eating disorder has risen by 110% in the past three years. ChildLine says it received more than 10,500 calls and online inquiries from young people struggling with food and weight-related anxiety in one year alone.
Despite this increase in demand for specialist support, in the first three years of this government the amount the NHS spent on specialist eating disorder clinics dropped. I am regularly contacted by constituents and others who are living with the realities of eating disorders and struggling to get the help that they need. One father told me about his daughter who had battled eating disorders for a decade. She had been admitted to intensive care weighing under four stone, and it was only thanks to the special care from the doctors and nurses that she survived. Her Dad told me he was concerned about the lack of understanding amongst GPs, and the lack of counselling for young people for what he called 'probably the worst of all mental health issues.'
Alarmingly, the number of people who died from an eating disorder almost doubled between 2010 and 2012. Yet it was only last month, that the Government claimed they will take action. Of course this is welcome, though we will wait to see if it translates to change on the ground. This is not the first time we have heard promises from the government on mental health, many of which have failed to be achieved as services have deteriorated.
Last month the Health Select Committee reported that children's and young people's safety was being compromised by 'major problems with access to inpatient mental health services'. The committee went on to catalogue a series of government failures including cuts to early intervention services, increased waiting times and 'unacceptable variation' in quality of services across the country.
The next Labour government has committed to a new focus on mental illness. We seek nothing less than absolute, practical parity between mental illness and physical illness. That means that a patient presenting at a GP surgery with the symptoms of anorexia nervosa or bulimia will be treated with the same degree of expertise and urgency as a patient with cancer or a broken bone.
Labour has a vision for whole person cares that integrates social, physical and health services. We will create a system that cares for the patient as a whole rather than one symptom at a time.
We will make mental health priority by rewriting the NHS Constitution to create a legal right to talking therapies - just as people currently have to drugs and treatments for physical illness. We will ensure that training for all professional staff in the NHS includes mental health and we will invest in an additional 20,000 nurses by 2020, including mental health nurses, to ensure our NHS is fit for the 21st century.
We want to get to the point where when people go to their GP, it would be as normal for them to expect questions about their mental health as their physical health and for social or psychological support to be offered as routinely as medication. Only then can we hope to ensure that everyone with an illness, whether that be mental or physical gets the help that they need.