The government is failing to protect those living with eating disorders
No one should be condemned to a life of illness, nor should anyone be dying of an eating disorder in 2023
Eating disorders are a deadly misery that plague so many lives. Across the United Kingdom, 1.25 million people have an eating disorder. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. A third of people with a binge eating disorder are at risk of suicide. Despite this high prevalence and devastating consequence, eating disorders are ignored and misunderstood as a “lifestyle choice”. Left undiagnosed and untreated, they are a silent killer that are not given nearly enough attention.
The problem is only growing. Hospital admissions for people with eating disorders have risen by 84 per cent in the past five years. More than 8,000 adults with eating disorders are waiting to be seen for therapy – the highest number recorded since data started being collected in 2019. Just 30 per cent of adults received treatment within four weeks of referral. Beat, the eating disorder charity, has revealed that there is an average delay of three and a half years between someone’s eating disorder symptoms emerging and them accessing treatment. These delays only prolong and intensify the suffering.
There are also rigid criteria patients must meet to receive treatment – criteria that need reforming. During my campaigning on this issue, I have heard horrific stories of people being told they cannot be treated for an eating disorder because their Body Mass Index (BMI) was not low enough. To imply that someone seeking help for an eating disorder is “not skinny enough” is an act of cruelty, and this cannot be allowed to continue.
However the government is yet to grasp the scale or need for action. It was deeply disappointing to learn that it abandoned its promise to publish a 10-year cross-government mental health and well-being plan for England. This is a callous disregard for the nation’s mental health.
I have heard horrific stories of people being told they cannot be treated for an eating disorder because their BMI was not low enough
Mental health services need to be funded properly. Local authorities are a crucial partner here. More people are seeking mental health treatment and support than ever. In 2022-23, only 13.8 per cent of local health spending is allocated to mental health (including learning disabilities and dementia) despite mental illness accounting for 21.3 per cent of the total disease burden in England. The government’s erosion of council budgets is having real consequences on the quality of care that local authorities can provide. It is through no fault of local government that they are simply not given the money or resources to fight this problem.
It is not just councils which are under-resourced in the fight against this epidemic of eating disorders. The NHS is also struggling to cope. Our health service’s mental health treatment capacity has been severely constrained by staff shortages. According to the National Audit Office, between 2021-22, 17,000 staff left the NHS mental health workforce. The government has no real plan to fill these vacancies, meaning longer waiting times, missed targets and dangers to patient safety. I have called on ministers to produce a long-term NHS workforce strategy to be written into law and help us gain a better understanding of these pressures.
We are also failing to prepare the staff of the future to recognise and deal with eating disorders. According to the charity Beat, 20 per cent of medical schools do not include eating disorders at all in their teaching, while those that do provide less than two hours of teaching. This training should be compulsory to spot early signs of eating disorders.
As the chair of the APPG on Eating Disorders, I will use my voice in Parliament to challenge the government to do better for eating disorder sufferers. No one should be condemned to a life of illness, nor should anyone be dying of an eating disorder in 2023.
Wera Hobhouse is Liberal Democrat MP for Bath and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eating Disorders
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