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No one should be dying from an eating disorder in 2021

Hope Virgo

Hope Virgo

5 min read

We need ring fenced funding and a proper care pathway for people with eating disorders and their carers, or we will keep losing more and more lives.

When we think of someone with an eating disorder, we often have an image in our heads of a young, white, emaciated teenage girl. But would it surprise you to realise that in fact, that image is the minority, and that only six per cent of people with eating disorders are actually underweight? 25% are male and eating disorders do not discriminate when it comes to race, class, or age. The problem with images like this is it stops people reaching out for support, but it also fuels stereotypes and misconceptions around eating disorders having one look.

Imagine if you broke your leg. You would make your way to A&E, you would get x-rayed, they would examine the break, and then plaster it up. Pretty standard. But what if that person turned up at the hospital, had an x-ray, only to be told to come back when the break was worse? This is the reality for someone with an eating disorder, who will often be told, “you aren’t thin enough” or “your BMI isn’t really that low” to qualify for treatment.

Nikki Grahame’s death is a stark reminder of the current situation for eating disorders across the UK

Experts have now found that growing numbers of people in England are being denied support for eating disorders because they are not considered to be thin enough. A few weeks ago I met with The Department of Health and Social Care alongside Dr Agnes Ayton, the chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists eating disorders faculty. We discussed the fourfold increase in hospital admissions for eating disorders in the last year, and the barriers that people face when accessing services; the main one being that people with eating disorders cannot access support because of their BMI. 

“Unfortunately, it is not uncommon that patients are excluded from chronically underfunded services based on their BMI,” explained Dr Agnes Ayton. “This puts desperate patients in a life-threatening position to reduce more weight in order to meet the threshold to gain help.” 

Before we go on, whilst this is something that is happening across the board of NHS treatment, it is not necessarily the fault of the NHS, and there are wider issues around funding, bed availability and frontline staff having to make some really difficult decisions over who gets support this year.  

Eating disorders are a growing problem. However, there is a vicious cycle between the lack of awareness, lack of training, lack of funding, and lack of research. The recent 2019 Health Survey found that 16% of adults aged 16 and over (19% of women and 13% of men) screened positive for a possible eating disorder.

Over Covid-19 the rise in people with eating disorders has been huge with the pandemic having detrimental impacts on those with eating disorders, those in recovery and also in the development of new eating disorders. Right now, the support, treatment and understanding is not out there. On top of this, we have seen some extremely unhealthy messages being pushed through the government’s obesity strategy. 

Reading the Women and Equalities Committee report on eating disorders and body image I was delighted to see such strong recommendations. From scrapping BMI (something I have been campaigning on for years with the #DumptheScales Campaign… looks like persistence or maybe being irritating pays off!) But whilst these recommendations are an amazing step forward we need a proper timeline of implementation, and take into account educating all frontline staff so when a person presents with an eating disorder they are treated in the right way.

Suzanne Baker and Helen Missen FEAST Representative UK explained; “Eating disorder treatment services in the UK were woefully underfunded and a postcode lottery pre Covid-19. This last year has brought the system to its knees and the situation is now a public health crisis. At FEAST we believe that eating disorders are treatable with a combination of nutritional, medical and therapeutic supports and that recovery is possible at any age and at any stage - the fact that people are still dying from these illnesses is a national disgrace. We are heartened to read this report and the light it shines on the ‘devastating impact of the pandemic’ upon vulnerable individuals. We look forward to further discussions and action to improve access to evidence-based treatment for all those suffering from eating disorders.”

Nikki Grahame’s death is a stark reminder of the current situation for eating disorders across the UK, an illness that has the highest mortality rate out of any psychiatric illness.

We must learn from this death. Services are underfunded, there is still a huge misunderstanding around eating disorders and also a huge amount of stigma. We need ring fenced funding and a proper care pathway for people with eating disorders and their carers, or we will keep losing more and more lives.

With the right support, pathways, funding and treatment we can see a proper implementation of the recommendations in the most recent report and save lives.


Hope Virgo is a mental health campaigner and author and Founder of #DumpTheScales.

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