THE number of children urgently put into NHS treatment for an eating disorder rose by 85 per cent at the end of last year, official figures show.
Experts have warned the isolation, uncertainty and boredom of coronavirus restrictions are forcing youngsters to find comfort in control of their eating habits.
The number of children in England who started treatment for an eating disorder in each quarter of 2019 and 2020
Analysis of NHS figures show that in the period between October and December 2020, 700 under 18s in England started treatment for an urgent eating disorder, such as anorexia or bulimia.
It’s 85 per cent higher than the 377 in the same period in 2019.
For routine cases, it rose 40 per cent from 1,812 to 2,554 in the three-month period.
It follows an upwards trend across the second half of 2020, as Covid restrictions took their toll on Britain.
Rates were relatively the same between January and June, during which time the first lockdown was put in place.
But the figure shot up once Covid restrictions took hold and youngsters had been out of schools for months.
A total of 625 “urgent” children admitted were between July and September compared to an expected 345, based on 2019 figures.
The hikes do not represent the NHS working through a backlog caused by lockdowns, but a genuine increase.
In total, 9,758 children started a treatment plan for an eating disorder in 2020, compared with 7,963 in 2019.
Alarmingly, more children are having to wait for treatment, up to three months, even if they are deemed as the most at-risk.
There were more than twice as many children still waiting to start treatment between October and December of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019 (1,302 and 554).
Tom Quinn, from the leading eating disorder charity Beat, said the figures are “worrying and unfortunately not unexpected”.
“Over the course of the pandemic we have seen the demand to Beat’s helpline services increase by 173 per cent”, he said.
Young women aged between 12 and 20 years old are the most at risk of eating disorders – such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating – Beat says.
Private services have also seen a rise in troubled parents seeking help for their children.
Orri, an eating disorder day care treatment centre, saw a 30 per cent rise in enquiries from parents of under 16-year-olds during the first lockdown.
Why are figures rising?
The causes of eating disorders are complex, but Kerrie Jones, CEO and Founder of Orri, explained the impact of coronavirus was indirectly taking its toll.
She told The Sun: “Throughout the UK, we are seeing huge rises in cases of anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders, and the young people we work with are telling us that the impact of schools closing and cancelled exams with the ongoing uncertainty around what this means for them both now, but also for their futures.
“There’s a struggle with the ongoing isolation from friends, not being able to do the things they enjoy, whether it’s kicking a ball round, going to clubs or groups or simply just hanging out with friends.
“This in turn brings feelings of isolation and loneliness, and of course this is often compounded by the understandable increase in the use of social media sites.”
Social media does not directly cause eating disorders, but its influence is increasingly powerful on people’s perceptions of beauty.
Ms Jones said during coronavirus, when children have had few distractions, they “regularly find themselves dominated by images of ‘perfect’ bodies with content driven towards them showing them the best ways to live, eat, dress, exercise or look”.
Kerrie Jones, CEO and Founder of Orri, said children’s social media was dominated by images of “perfect” bodiesCredit: Getty – Contributor
She added that teenagers had struggled with the “loss of university life” they had hoped for, both in terms of social and educational.
“It’s therefore not a great surprise that an illness such as an eating disorder that creates a way of managing difficult feelings, giving a sense of achievement at times, or relief, can offer comfort when all around them feels so uncertain and scary.
“Eating disorders thrive when some is in a place of isolation and when they are looking for something that can lead them to feeling safer and more certain.
“Losing contact with friends, familiar places and with life as they know it changing so dramatically, many have found comfort an eating disorder which in the absence of anything else, creates a focus and sense of purpose that they come to rely on.”
A “bombardment” of coronavirus weight loss warnings have also been considered as a cause of rising eating disorders, as obesity is a risk factor for Covid death.
How can you help your child?
The NHS has tips for how to help your child through an eating disorder.
Some of these include:
- Always listen to their feelings
Talking to your child is needed for their recovery, so it’s important to keep trying even if they appear withdrawn.
It helps if you stay calm and prepare what you’re going to say to them – do not blame or judge them, just focus on how they’re feeling
Try to use sentences starting with “I”, like, “I’m worried because you do not seem happy”, rather than sentences beginning with “you”.
- Avoid talking about weight or food
Avoid discussing people’s diets or weight problems, especially to comment on your child’s appearance – even if you have something nice to say.
Agree with the family that none of you will talk about portion sizes, calories or anything else about food when around your affected child.
- Give them distractions around mealtimes
Try to keep things light-hearted and positive throughout meal times, even if you do not feel that way on the inside.
If your child tries to get too involved in cooking the meal as a way of controlling it, gently ask them to set the table or wash up instead.
A family activity after the meal, such as a game or watching TV, can help distract them from wanting to purge or overexercise after eating.
- Support their treatment
If your child is being treated for an eating disorder, their treatment team will play a big part in their recovery.
But the support of relatives and friends is important, and you can help by learning as much as possible about their eating disorder.
It’s important to make them feel they can be honest about what they are going through – so tell them they are loved and you will always be there for them.
- Be a good role model
Eat a balanced diet and do a healthy amount of exercise so your child is not influenced by yours – or anyone else’s’ – habits that could fuel their eating disorder more.
For example, don’t buy “diet” or “low-calorie” foods for the house, eat them in front of them or talk about your own weight.