Do more, more quickly – eating disorders among the young at crisis levels

Liz Emerson, IF Co-founder, asks whether any progress has been made over reducing the huge waiting lists for mental health support facing children and young people with eating disorders.

The Children’s Commissioner has just released new analysis of NHS data covering the years 2016/17 and 2022/23 and found that the number of the children and young people who are being treated for an eating disorder has more than doubled – up from 5,240 to 11,800 children, with under-25s, made up largely of young women and girls, accounting for close to half of the 24,300 patients admitted for eating disorder treatment. Meanwhile, admissions of young men have almost doubled over the same period.

Unacceptable delays

In spite of The Royal College of Psychiatry (RCPsych) calling out a lack of funding and unacceptable delays leading to a crisis point in March 2023, this latest analysis shows that waiting times for NHS treatment have increased to more than 12 weeks for 45% of those seeking urgent treatment in the last quarter. According to Children and Young People Now, psychiatrists predicted the rise in 2020 and say the government should have done more to tackle it.

Emergency admissions skyrocketing

2022 figures revealed that hospital admissions for eating disorders was up 84% in five years. The lack of investment in early access treatment for our youngest generations is yet another example of the many intergenerational unfairnesses playing out in post-COVID government spending. According to the The Guardian, “the analysis, which was submitted as part of evidence gathering for the government’s major conditions strategy, also found that while government targets are for 95% of children and young people with eating disorders to begin treatment within one week for urgent cases and four weeks for non-urgent cases, the targets were being missed in about one in five cases in the third quarter of 2022-23.”

NHS response

The NHS states that it is taking steps to improve “community services” as set out in the Mental Health Implementation Plan “including working towards 100% coverage of 24/7 crisis provision for children and young people by 2023/24.” While reform and investment is welcome, where does this leave the many children and young people currently experiencing eating disorders and a lack of access to urgent treatment?

NHS England states that it has “identified a need to improve the national distribution of inpatient beds, address urgent gaps…[and] provide more effective integrated treatment pathways”. It also accepts the need to eliminate inappropriate out-of-area placements, improve local bed availability and eliminate under-18s being placed in adult beds.

Invest in earlier intervention

Earlier intervention is a win-win for young patients, medical outcomes and wider society today as well as in the future. From a fiscal economics perspective, investment in earlier intervention reduces the cost to wider society over the long term, meaning that government spending can be better targeted at other priority areas in the future. The argument is laid out in Costing Young Minds: The fiscal consequences of a lack of spending on young adult mental health.

Write to your MP

We need to ensure that politicians take action. So, please visit to find your MP and demand action. Here is some copy you can use:

“As a local voter I am writing to you as my Member of Parliament to ask you to demand more funding from the government for child and young adult mental health early intervention services. Our young people are our future and deserve greater investment in mental health services. It cannot be fair that their generation is facing a crisis in mental ill-health and waiting times of more than 12 weeks in nearly all regions.”

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