“Ask for help” is the primary advice given to anyone struggling with mental health. This is often the first hurdle sufferers must overcome, but to ask implies a response. Instead, what should be the gateway towards a long process of recovery is a process in itself; those most vulnerable are being forced into a system of waiting lists, ignorance and misunderstanding. This is the reality for the growing number of eating disorder cases throughout the UK. Last week, NHS England published figures of the rapid rise in inpatient admissions, with numbers more than doubling from 7,260 to 13,885 in the last six years.
Eating disorders, including illnesses such as anorexia, bulimia, binge-eating disorder and EDNOS (eating disorder not otherwise specified), are mental illnesses that manifest physically. For this reason, they are the deadliest of all mental health disorders, with one in five cases ending fatally. It is this complexity combined with an overstretched, under-funded care system that results in the downward spiral: doctors are forced to prioritise, and can treat only the physically sickest. Meanwhile, the rest get sicker. People simply become cases.
How can we break the cycle? Namely, by removing the focus on the physical. Creating a system that opposes eating disorder thought patterns involves an entire overhaul of how eating disorders are treated by the NHS.
Those most vulnerable are being forced into a system of waiting lists
The NHS must focus treatment on wellness, by responding positively to mind-sets focused on recovery. Furthermore, preventative measures for those susceptible to severe cases must be taken at the beginning, rather than the end, of their descending health. This can be carried out in the form of educating people and raising awareness of the initial signs of a problem. Similarly, a striving for health, can be encouraged by amplifying the voices of those in recovery. The stories of past sufferers should focus on how well they became, rather than how ill they once were.
Present similarities between the process of treatment and disordered thoughts creates a downward spiral that leads people further into their illnesses. Instead, disorders that thrive off physical numbers should be treated by their mental nuances, disorders that focus on an external image should be treated by their internal roots and disorders that idolise sickness should be treated by an equally vigorous and all-consuming ideology towards health.
Recent reports have shown that admissions to hospitals of people with life-threatening eating disorders has almost doubled in the past six years. In an era of NHS funding cuts and overcrowded hospitals, it’s no surprise that our health service is struggling to cope with this sudden increase.
Eating disorders, including anorexia and bulimia, are notoriously hard to diagnose, and manifest in so many different ways that treatment can be difficult. Almost every person who suffers from an eating disorder experiences the illness in a particular way, and treatment, such as regular health checks and meetings with a team of specialists, can take months to be effective. Therefore, to support all of this, an efficient healthcare system is needed. The rapid increase in admissions means that less specialists are being stretched amongst more patients, with obvious consequences. When the director of the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, Beat, says that ‘the system is not working at the moment’, it’s clear that something needs to be done.
Less specialists are being stretched amongst more patients, with obvious consequences
When it comes to health, the government has a poor track record for implementing measures for improved mental health care. CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) funding is less than £70 per head in the majority of the country, dropping to less than £35 per head in areas such as the Norfolk coast. For an apparently developed and progressive country, this is diabolical. This level of funding is putting some of the most vulnerable people in our society at risk. And remember - these funds are supposed to cover treatment for all mental illnesses, not just eating disorder treatment. As admissions rise, so should funding and availability of care. Instead, the government is failing to act, and by doing so are highlighting a distinct lack of compassion for people who need help the most.
Once an eating disorder has been diagnosed, the increasingly common and incredibly scary postcode lottery of treatment becomes apparent. In the United Kingdom in 2018, you would naturally expect to be entitled to the best possible treatment no matter where you live. However, with areas simply lacking the resources and services for effective treatment, many people are forced to travel to the nearest specialists miles away. This is not good enough. Accepting that you need help can be an incredibly scary thing to do, without having to deal with the stress of travelling for hours to receive treatment. Recovering from eating disorders can take years, and relapses can occur, meaning that easy access to healthcare professionals is essential. The NHS is a national health service, and people in remote areas shouldn’t feel like a burden if they have to travel to receive treatment.
If you think that you or someone you know might be struggling with an Eating Disorder, the Beat Eating Disorders charity provides information and advice about what to do and where to find further support: www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk
Helpline: 0808 801 0677