UK sees sharp rise in hospital admissions for eating disorders

The number of people being admitted to hospital for eating disorders has increased by more than one-third (37%) over the last two years, according to figures from NHS England.

Psychiatrists and eating disorder experts are calling the rise in admissions “worrying” and are calling on the government to promote early intervention because more needs to be done to support people before they reach crisis point.

The number of admissions for 2018 – 2019 was 19,040, which is up from 16,558 in 2017-2018 and up from 13,885 in 2016-2017.

Person looking out of windowImage Credit: Sasa Prudkov / Shutterstock.com

The most common age of children admitted was 13 to 15 years

Children aged 18 and under accounted for one-quarter (4,471) of the admissions in 2018-2019, with more than half of those (2,403) being admitted for anorexia, which is up 12% compared with 2017-2018. Of the children admitted for anorexia, ten boys and six girls were aged nine and under.

The figures showed that the most common age of children admitted for anorexia was between 13 and 15 years.

Among older age groups admitted in 2018-2019, women aged 19 and older accounted for 5,274 admissions for anorexia and 3,542 admissions for bulimia. The corresponding figures for men were 327 and 381.

Experts call the figures worrying

Chief executive of the charity YoungMinds, Emma Thomas, who called the figures "worrying,” says that, although community care for young people with eating disorders has improved in recent years, it can still be difficult for them to get the help they need before they reach crisis point.

Getting early support for an eating disorder can prevent problems from escalating, meaning young people are more likely to fully recover…The government must make prevention and early intervention a priority for every child struggling with their mental health, to ensure that they get help as soon as they need it."

Emma Thomas, YoungMinds

Chairwoman of the faculty of eating disorders at the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), Agnes Ayton also thinks the rise in admissions is a worrying sign that the problem is not being treated properly in its early stages. She said healthcare staff need to be better trained in spotting eating disorders because early diagnosis and treatment can reduce hospital admissions and saves lives:

Rising hospital admissions for eating disorders are very worrying as they are the deadliest mental health disorders. Patients often face long delays in accessing specialist treatment. The government must ensure eating disorder services are properly staffed to help bring waiting times down and reduce the need for hospitalization."

The NHS figures support other evidence that eating disorders are on the rise. Last year, a study conducted by King’s College London researchers indicated that cases of anorexia among pre-teenage children had doubled in the UK and Ireland over the last decade.

Experts suggest reasons for the rise

Tom Quinn from the eating disorders charity Beat, said there are several explanations that could explain the increase in admissions among young people.:

"While this rise in the number of young people admitted to hospital for treatment could mean that the number of young people with eating disorders is increasing, it could also be due to improvement in the ability of healthcare professionals to identify eating disorders."

Claire Murdoch, national mental health director for the NHS, also praised the progress the service has made, saying that waiting times for NHS eating disorder services are better than ever and that 100 new or improved services have been set up in recent years and backed by millions in extra funding:

"It's clear that while the NHS is ramping up services through our Long Term Plan, the dangerous drivers of mental ill health need to be cracked down on by the rest of society."

However, Ayton thinks the rise is probably due to more people were becoming ill, since hospital admission only happens once the situation is life-threatening:

Hospitalization is the tip of the iceberg. We know that with both children and adults people sometimes aren’t seeking help early enough so they get to a critical state when it’s not safe to manage their treatment in the community, so we want to encourage people to seek help early.”

Ayton and colleagues at the RCP are calling for more investment in specialist psychiatrists to help tackle the issue of unfilled specialist posts in the NHS, which has doubled over the last six years.

Ayton says one in six eating disorders psychiatrist posts in the NHS are unfilled and that the majority of patients are first seen by non-specialists with as little as two hours’ training.

“We really need more specialist psychiatrists,” she concludes.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally has a Bachelor's Degree in Biomedical Sciences (B.Sc.). She is a specialist in reviewing and summarising the latest findings across all areas of medicine covered in major, high-impact, world-leading international medical journals, international press conferences and bulletins from governmental agencies and regulatory bodies. At News-Medical, Sally generates daily news features, life science articles and interview coverage.

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