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Access to eating disorder treatment is a fundamental right but many are being denied access


Hope Virgo

Hope Virgo

4 min read

Imagine sitting in a room with your clinical team, there to help you recover from an eating disorder, but being told you aren’t working hard enough.

Imagine having to beg someone to keep you in treatment because without them you can’t possibly increase your food intake to fuel your body enough to stay alive. Imagine being discharged because the treatment isn’t working fast enough and your recovery is taking too long. And then sitting there asking, “What next? I don’t want to die, I just can’t do this”.

The stigma and underfunding is destroying services. But nothing is changing

This story isn’t unique and it’s not even exceptional. It is in fact one of 100s of stories I get sent daily. Stories of people who are denied treatment because they are too sick, or not sick enough. People with eating disorders who are being put on palliative care pathways.

We have had issues around treatment for eating disorders for decades; the stigma and underfunding is destroying services. But nothing is changing, we aren’t tackling this with any sense of urgency and the system is breaking daily. Eating disorders have historically been viewed as a choice, something that only impacts white teenage girls and grows out of a vanity exercise when they actually are serious mental illnesses with the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness. Eating disorders are an illness that doesn’t just impact the person with it, but their entire network of support.

Suzanne Baker, carer representative at the Faculty of Eating Disorders at The Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “We urgently need adequately funded services and pathways that allow integrated and continuous care across community, day patient and inpatient services. Only then will patients be given the opportunity for a strong foundation for recovery.”

The reality right now for those affected by eating disorders is scary and dangerous. The truth is that people will keep dying unless action is taken. For too long eating disorders have been side-lined, we need the government to step up and have those conversations around funding and stigma.

Nic Hart sadly lost his daughter Averil in 2012, “I have been extremely patient with the NHS in waiting for the overdue promised improvements in care for those suffering with an eating disorder. However my patience is running out after so many recent tragedies and deaths resulting from poor care. Continuing to fail patients is not an option. It is now time for the NHS to wake up and reform the treatment of patients with eating disorders in order to prevent further unnecessary deaths and also to improve the lives of those that are suffering without the proper treatment and care they so badly need.”

The latest research out of Oxford has shown that integrated enhanced cognitive behavioural treatment (I-CBTE) has been highly effective in treating patients with anorexia nervosa. In fact, 70 per cent of hospitalised patients who received I-CBTE maintained recovery one year after discharge, which is a vast improvement compared to the 5 per cent success rate of traditional treatment methods. Additionally, readmissions dropped by 70 per cent. I-CBTE is the result of 20 years of research and seamlessly integrates both inpatient and outpatient treatment. Implementing I-CBTE across the care pathway could have a transformative impact on patient outcomes and help to reduce costs within the NHS, but yet for some reason there have been no plans to expand this model.

Beyond treatment, adequate funding and services, we also need to be looking at the research. Professor Gerome Breen said, “It is essential that we develop new treatments for eating disorders including drug treatments that are specifically designed to target the core symptoms of these disorders. Without effective medication to assist psychological therapy we will continue to see bad outcomes. We are researching the genetics of these disorders to try and find new drug targets and biology. We know that eating disorders are more heritable than most psychiatric conditions yet biological research in the area is not at all as developed.”

The inaction to truly tackle mental health issues and the epidemic that we face is killing people. 

Access to treatment is a fundamental human right yet so many people are without it. We have the chance to change this, but we need funding, government leadership, commitments, and a plan for this to happen. 


Hope Virgo, author, campaigner and founder of #DumpTheScales

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