Eating disorders among under-18s in Scotland soared in lockdown, psychiatrists warn

The number of children and young people with an eating disorder has soared to “crisis” point during lockdown, a psychiatry body has warned.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) in Scotland said figures obtained through Freedom of Information show there were 217 referrals for eating disorders in children and young people under the age of 18 in 2018/19.

This increased to 456 in 2019/20 and in 2020/21 almost tripled to 615.

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RCPsych in Scotland said an emphasis on virtual appointments, loss of support structures, staffing shortages and less access to community services because of Covid-19 has fuelled the crisis.

Rob Donaldson, whose 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2019.
Rob Donaldson, whose 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with anorexia in 2019.

The college is calling on Scotland’s new minister for mental wellbeing, Kevin Stewart, to ensure new funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) also covers young people with eating disorders.

Rob Donaldson’s 17-year-old daughter is being treated at a young person’s unit after being diagnosed with an eating disorder in 2019.

The anorexia sufferer was first admitted to hospital in April last year, shortly after lockdown began, having struggled to cope when her weekly face-to-face treatment was moved online due to the pandemic.

Mr Donaldson, from Dundee, said: “It’s worrying to see the statistics for children and young people with eating disorders increase across Scotland. Lockdown has had a huge negative impact on my daughter’s anorexia.

“We were receiving outpatient care at home, and attending weekly family-based therapy sessions, but all of a sudden that stopped. Therapy took place on video calls and it simply did not work for her.

“There was nothing to motivate her to eat, without school and being isolated at home all day, the illness thrived. Within a few weeks of lockdown, she quickly deteriorated and was admitted to an inpatient unit for young people.

“This was a huge shock for us all and during the early days of the pandemic as we were not allowed to see her for three weeks.”

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His daughter was well enough to come home by late summer, but by mid-November was very ill again and was admitted to a specialist young person’s unit in Glasgow, more than 100 miles from home as this was the only bed available, which he said was “traumatic” for the family.

Dr Ereni Skouta, vice-chair of the CAMHS faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said: “The truth is, CAMHS services were already struggling to cope pre-pandemic, but now we’re seeing a worrying trend and a huge increase in the number of children and young people presenting with deadly eating disorders.

“An emphasis on virtual appointments, loss of support structures and staffing shortages as well as less access to community services because of Covid-19, has fuelled this crisis.”

Kevin Stewart, minister for mental wellbeing, said: "We will shortly announce the next steps in improving services, having considered the recommendations from the National Review of Eating Disorders Services – which considered the services available, the wider support system and the impact that the pandemic and associated restrictions have had on those with an eating disorder and their families.

“Our Mental Health Transition and Recovery Plan published in October sets out our response to the mental health effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The plan is supported by a £120 million Recovery and Renewal fund, announced in February, to transform services.”

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