The pandemic has been hard on our mental and physical health with the social and physical isolation exacerbating many conditions, including eating disorders.
In fact, hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen significantly in the pandemic, jumping 84% in the past five years – with boys and young men increasingly affected.
There were 11,049 more admissions for illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia between 2020 and 2021 than in 2015/16, reaching 24,268 admissions across England, new research found.
Admissions in children and young people rose from 3,541 to 6,713, with a 35% increase in the last year alone, according to analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP).
And the rise in hospitalization of boys and young men with eating disorders is strong, jumping from 280 hospital admissions in 2015/16 to 637 in 2020/2021.
The RCP is now launching new guidelines to help health professionals identify people whose eating disorders have become life-threatening, so they can get the right care.
Two high profile cases amplified the conversation on eating disorders in April 2021, following the death of Big Brother star Nikki Grahame and, in the same month, the daughter of Trevor Phillips’ Sushila, who had anorexia for 22 years.
Just a week before Grahame’s death, mum Sue Grahame spoke of how lockdown restrictions – from social isolation to the closure of gyms – had impacted her daughter’s mental health.
Eating disorders charity Beat told HuffPost UK that it had seen a 302% rise in demand for helpline services since the first lockdown in March 2020.
Beat’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said at the time: “We know the pandemic has been particularly difficult for people affected by eating disorders.
“It is not surprising, as those affected and their families have had to cope with extreme changes to their daily routines, support networks and care plans, all while also dealing with the additional stress the pandemic has brought.”
Quinn urged anyone worried about their health to contact their GP.
However, the RCP is worried that vital signs somebody is dangerously ill from an eating disorder are being missed by some GP surgeries and in A&E due to a lack of guidance and training – which is why it has issued the new guidelines.
Even when seriously unwell, people with eating disorders can appear to be healthy, returning normal blood tests.
For example, somebody with anorexia can have dangerously low levels of electrolytes like potassium that are not reflected in blood tests, while patients with bulimia can also have severe electrolyte disturbances and stomach problems, even when presenting with normal weight or being overweight.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, who chaired the development of the new guidelines for eating disorders emergencies said there was a need for greater awareness of common symptoms among medical professionals and the public.
“Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating don’t discriminate, and can affect people of any age and gender,” she said.
“They are mental health disorders, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, and we shouldn’t underestimate how serious they are.”
One in five deaths of people with anorexia are due to suicide, while all eating disorders see high rates of self-harm and depression. However, the right support could lead to recovery in most cases, Dr Nicholls stressed.
“Even though anorexia nervosa is often referred to as the deadliest mental health condition, most deaths are preventable with early treatment and support. Full recovery is possible if spotted and treated early,” she said.
“If we are to stop the eating disorders epidemic in its tracks, it’s vital that this guidance reaches healthcare professionals urgently and that government backs them with the necessary resources to implement them.”
A spokesperson for the NHS confirmed that it was treating a third more children and young people for eating disorders than it had two years ago and agreed that professionals needed support to better understand and respond to signs someone was seriously ill.
They added: “Parents can also find information on potential symptoms, such as binge eating, feeling guilty after eating, negative self-image, and other signs of a potential eating disorder on the NHS website, and they should not hesitate to contact the NHS if they or their child need support.”
Beat also welcomed the new guidance. Tom Quinn told PA: “We sadly know from the results of past inquiries that insufficient training and failure to follow the previous guidance led to preventable deaths, which cannot be allowed to happen again.
“Everyone with an eating disorder deserves safe and effective treatment, regardless of the healthcare setting or specialism of their care team.”