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Eating disorders – it's time for action

With a huge rise in the number of young people showing signs of eating disorders, Nick Clegg's announcement of £150 million investment is timely.

Announcing the new funding in December 2014, the Deputy PM said it would 'reform the treatment of children and young people with eating disorders'. The intention is to refocus investment from 'expensive institutional care to local provision', supporting schemes to get young people early access to community support and extending availability of talking therapies. It's part of an ongoing campaign by the government to give mental health services parity with physical health services, which includes reducing waiting times.

According to a recent article in The Independent, the charity Childline has reported a 110% increase in contacts from children and teenagers struggling with food and weight-related anxiety. There are no Department of Health statistics to back this up because they only record incidents which involve hospitalisation. However, figures from NICE suggest that as many as 1.6 million people in the UK may be affected by an eating disorder, while other sources suggest the problem is increasingly affecting younger age groups. In 2013, researchers at University College London found that, amongst children as young as 13, 12% of girls and 5% of boys were 'terrified' about the prospect of getting fat, and 26% of girls were already displaying eating disorder behaviours. The eating disorder charity Beat is aware of cases of anorexia nervosa in children as young as six.

Against a backdrop of squeezed funding and staff shortages, this presents a huge challenge, not just for mental health professionals such as psychologists, family therapists and mental health nurses, but also for GPs, clinical nurses and support staff, including occupational therapists and of course, dietitians. Because eating disorders are both psychological and physiological, a multidisciplinary approach seems to achieve the most successful outcomes. The British Dietetic Association's Mental Health Group asserts that registered dietitians are essential within multidisciplinary teams and can provide authoritative advice to other health professionals on nutritional aspects of care.

Occupational therapists also have a role to play. In New Zealand, treatment for eating disorders has already been refocused to community care, and the importance of empowering sufferers to work and function normally in society has been widely recognised. "Occupational therapists have the skills and creativity, and a unique perspective of occupation, to support recovery from ED," wrote Maree Clark and Shoba Naya in a 2012 article for the New Zealand Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Whichever of the two main parties wins the general election next May, it seems mental health spending is going to be high on the agenda. Labour has committed to a new focus on mental illness, promising greater integration of social, physical and health services. "A patient presenting at a GP surgery with the symptoms of anorexia nervosa or bulimia will be treated with the same degree of expertise and urgency as a patient with cancer or a broken nose," claimed Shadow Public Health Minister Luciana Berger in a recent article for the Huffington Post.  She also promised an additional 20,000 nurses by 2020, including mental health nurses.

With hospital admissions for eating disorders up 16% in 2012 and 8% in October 2013 (source: Health and Social Care Information Centre) and 20% of anorexia nervosa sufferers dying prematurely from their illness (source: Beat), action to combat these devastating illnesses cannot come too soon.

Are you a mental or physical health professional with views on the issues raised in this article? Leave your comments below.

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