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Eating Disorders

Volume 817: debated on Monday 17 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to improve support for people (1) with, and (2) at risk of, eating disorders.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interest as a vice-chair of the APPG on Eating Disorders.

We are working to ensure that people of all ages with an eating disorder, or who are at risk of developing one, have access to the right support in the right place and at the right time. We are delivering on the ambitious transformation plans outlined in the NHS Long Term Plan and children and young people’s mental health Green Paper and provided additional investment this year to address pressures arising during the pandemic.

Does the Minister agree that improving support for eating disorders depends on improving understanding of their causes, prevention and treatment? Eating disorders account for 9% of mental health conditions in the UK but receive only 1% of mental health research funding. This leads not only to major evidence gaps but to fewer researchers, less research and the ongoing stigmatisation of the illnesses as a niche concern. Will the Minister’s department consider working with the NIHR on a long-term eating disorder research strategy to break this underfunding cycle, as it has for other health challenges, so that more effective support can be targeted on their prevention and treatment?

First, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for all the work she has done in this area, making sure that we are all aware of this issue and keeping it on the agenda. In answer to her specific question, the department has invested nearly £110 million in mental health research, including research on eating disorders through the NIHR, as she mentioned. This includes the Eating Disorders Genetics Initiative and a systemic review led by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre. UKRI has announced funding for a £3.8 million study on eating disorders to inform prevention and early prevention in young people. This research is being led by King’s College London and the University of Edinburgh.

My Lords, the latest NHS data shows a continuing increase in the number of people being hospitalised for eating disorders, mainly in the 18 to 39 age group, yet there is still no adult waiting time standard for people with eating disorders. This is despite knowing that access to quality community care can reduce the number of hospitalisations and unnecessary deaths. When are this Government going to introduce an adult waiting time standard for people accessing treatment for serious eating disorders?

As noble Lords can imagine, because of the pandemic, sadly, waiting times have gone up, but we are making sure that we are doing as much as we can to address that. Longer term, we are focusing on prevention, not only cure. We are also making sure that we are able to understand the various forms of eating disorder better. It is very simple to lump them all together, but there are different elements and you can distinguish between them. Then we will, I hope, be able to tackle that as much as possible.

My Lords, given that many young people with eating disorders find it very difficult to seek help and identify themselves, what specific additional resources have been provided for schools to help and support young people with this actually life- threatening illness?

The noble Baroness raises a very important point about how we identify children and young people who are suffering from these disorders or may be a few steps away from it. We know that there are programmes from the Department for Education and our department to tackle mental health issues in schools, identifying pupils and encouraging them to come forward, to talk to a counsellor in the school, and making sure that there is signposting in the right place to ensure that we can tackle their issues.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned that eating disorders do not always present in the same way. He will be aware that some fluctuate, moving from chronic to acute over a period and back again. When people seek treatment for eating disorders, at the moment those who can afford it are not even able to access treatment in the private sector. If they were able to, however, would they then be able to access NHS treatments at a later date, for example, should they not be able to afford to continue with private treatment?

The noble Baroness raises a really important point. It is an issue that was raised over the weekend, in an individual case. I know that we are always advised as Ministers not to get involved in individual clinical decisions, but in this this case a child had not yet got a bed and the parents wanted to take them out for private treatment until a bed became available. They were told that if they went to use the private sector they would be put at the back of the list. I am trying to get more details on this but it seems a lack of common sense. I want to understand why it is happening, but I have not had an answer yet.

My Lords, what are the Government doing with regard to working with industry, particularly the fashion industry? At the moment, there is great emphasis on size-zero models, which cannot really be helpful when linking it to the question that the noble Baroness asked previously. It is not a good image, or setting the right image for people—that is, for boys and girls.

The issue of poor body image that my noble friend raises is very important. The Government are addressing known risk factors through both universal and targeted interventions. At the top level, that means looking at the Better Health and Every Mind Matters content, which focuses on support for mental health and well-being. Poor body image and low self-esteem are topics addressed there. It is also about looking at what pupils expect and at the prevention concordat for better mental health programmes, as well as working as part of the anti-obesity strategy to make sure that we get the right balance. Sometimes when you focus on information on packets, for example, it can have unintended consequences for those with eating disorders. Every time we look at labelling, we have to make sure that we have addressed those unintended consequences on people with eating disorders, so that they do not react negatively to it and perhaps indulge in behaviour that we do not want to see them indulging in.

My Lords, the Royal College of Psychiatrists has warned that the hidden epidemic of eating disorders has surged during the pandemic, with many community services overstretched and unable to treat the number of people who need help. Will the Minister publish data about the number of people waiting for eating disorder treatment better to understand and meet the scale of the demand? Will he deliver a workforce plan to tackle staff shortages in eating disorder services so that it may be possible to treat everyone who desperately needs this help?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising the issue of the backlog as a result of the pandemic. We have seen eating disorder services continue to face increasing demand, especially as a result of lockdown and its mental health impact. The number of young people entering urgent treatment has increased by 73% between 2019-20 and 2021, and the numbers waiting for treatment have also increased from 561 to 2,083. To make sure that we meet the standard and get those waiting times down, we have invested an extra £79 million this financial year, and we are working with systems across the country to see how we can make sure that we address young people and adults who need access to this treatment.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is a very serious condition that 71% of the British people over the age of 30 are obese or overweight? The problem with this is that it interferes with the immune system, which makes them much more vulnerable to all kinds of diseases, not least infections. If we want to deal with the next pandemic now, we have to get people to reduce their weight so that obesity does not interfere with their immune systems.

The question from my noble friend highlights the difficulty of dealing with such a sensitive area. You have to be very careful how you address the issue of obesity. For example, it is quite right that we want to get the rates of obesity down, because it does lead to a number of other conditions that we have discussed many times here. One thing that you have to look at, however, is the unintended consequence of any laws. One possible unintended consequence is that some of the measures to tackle obesity, such as looking at food labelling, might affect people who have eating disorders. Every time we look at the obesity strategy, therefore, we make sure that we consult charities that look after people with eating disorders to ensure that we have the right balance. We will not always get it perfectly right, but we will try our best.

My Lords, anorexia nervosa is one of the most pervasive of mental health disorders. It can sometimes be successfully treated only in specialist in-patient units. What plans are there to grow the number of specialist in-patient beds? In 2019, the Government promised that people would not be sent to out-of-area beds after 2021, but I do not believe that that is currently the case.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will appreciate that we had a strategy to tackle obesity, but some of it has been knocked back a bit by Covid and having to tackle the backlog. However, we are looking at ways to ensure that the strategy gets back on track as we emerge from lockdown and there is, we hope, less pressure on the NHS.