Hospital admissions for people with eating disorders in England have risen 84% in the last five years, official NHS figures reveal.
There were 11,049 more admissions for illnesses such as bulimia and anorexia in 2020-21 than in 2015-16, with 24,268 admissions in total. Experts described the increase as “alarming”.
The number of children and young people admitted to hospital with eating disorders grew from 3,541 to 6,713, with a 35% increase in the last year alone as the Covid pandemic hit, according to the analysis by the Royal College of Psychiatrists.
A particularly stark rise in admissions – 128% – was seen in boys and young men, from 280 hospital admissions in 2015-16 to 637 in 2020-2021.
The college has published guidelines to help health professionals identify people whose eating disorders have become life-threatening and get them the right care. It said the signs that somebody was dangerously ill could be missed at GP surgeries and in A&E due to a lack of guidance and training.
Even when seriously unwell, people with eating disorders can appear to be healthy, with normal blood tests, the college said. For example, somebody with anorexia can have dangerously low levels of electrolytes such as potassium that are not reflected in blood tests. Patients with bulimia can also have severe electrolyte disturbances and stomach problems but can be a normal weight or overweight.
Dr Dasha Nicholls, who chaired the development of the medical emergencies in eating disorders guidelines, said: “Eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating don’t discriminate, and can affect people of any age and gender.
“They are mental health disorders, not a ‘lifestyle choice’, and we shouldn’t underestimate how serious they are. 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 there was a need to raise awareness of common eating disorder symptoms. “Our guidance encourages healthcare professionals to spot when someone is dangerously ill, and dispel the myths surrounding them,” she said. “They remain poorly understood, with devastating consequences for thousands of patients and their families.
“If we are to stop the eating disorders epidemic in its tracks, it is vital that this guidance reaches healthcare professionals urgently and that government backs them with the necessary resources to implement them.”
One in five deaths of people with anorexia are due to suicide, while there are high rates of self-harm and depression with all eating disorders.
James Downs, 32, who developed anorexia at the age of 15, had to wait more than six years after being diagnosed to receive specialist support. He blamed a lack of awareness of the signs of eating disorders getting worse among non-specialist healthcare professionals.
In the six years it took to get support, his illness took hold and his physical health deteriorated. Downs was frequently admitted to hospital with low potassium levels, low blood sugar, heart abnormalities and other consequences of malnutrition.
“Getting help early could prevent so many people from being admitted to hospital,” he said. “All healthcare professionals should be able to spot the signs and have timely and accessible treatments to offer patients.”