Nikki Grahame tragedy part of tsunami of eating disorder cases as services pushed to breaking point: Olivia Blake

Over the past year I have been contacted by hundreds of constituents about eating disorders: parents unable to access early intervention for their children; individuals turned away from support services because their case isn’t “serious enough” or BMI not “low enough”. I have spoken to frontline services with six month long waiting lists, and NHS staff left to treat children with eating disorders without specialist training.

Former Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame, who died earlier this month.

In February, the Royal College of Psychiatrists reported a “tsunami” of eating disorder patients in England, with children's hospitals seeing unimaginable numbers of people needing urgent help. Eating disorders charity Beat has seen a 302 per cent rise in demand for helpline services and public sector services have seen a 75 per cent increase in referrals.

Psychologists in South Yorkshire have also warned of an increase in more serious cases, because early signs haven't been spotted and treated.

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Last week I met with the South Yorkshire Eating Disorders Association (SYEDA), who provide support and early intervention for people with eating disorders and their carers. They have been forced to stop advertising their services, for fear of creating an even longer waiting list. One employee told me how wrong it felt to have to tell people who have disclosed personal information about their eating disorder that they have to wait 6-7 months before getting support.

Yet despite this bleak picture, every specialist I spoke to was clear: this crisis is not new. Well before the pandemic, our country faced a mental health crisis and demand for specialist services outstripped capacity. Chronically underfunded and overstretched, having borne the brunt of a decade of austerity, these services are doing an amazing job despite the circumstances. But the pandemic has accelerated a worrying upward trend in referrals, and the funding is just not there to deal with the scale of crisis.

We need a Government that recognises the emergency they face.

As we come out of this lockdown, we urgently need a ring fenced, emergency package of funding to equip our frontline services with the resources they need to meet the growing demand, reduce waiting times, and ensure everyone, everywhere can access support. We need to invest in hospital mental health training, so they can provide specialist inpatient support. We need to adopt innovative forms of treatment and launch well-funded research programmes into the most effective treatment. We must provide a consistent, fully-funded "Access and Waiting Time Standard" for adults seeking help.

But we can’t stop there. To truly address this crisis we need a root and branch reform of eating disorder provision. Services must no longer be forced to choose between investing in early intervention or emergency support. We need a holistic approach that centres preventative, community based, tailored support. Last month’s report from the Women and Inequalities Select Committee shone a light on the need for deep rooted reform, from the pitfalls of the Government’s obesity strategy to the damaging focus on BMI in care pathways. The recommendations would provide a good starting point for Government Ministers truly looking to tackle this crisis.

SYEDA are already leading the way in transforming provision in South Yorkshire. By bringing services into communities, pushing for more specialists in schools, and advocating a tailored approach to support, they are breaking down the barriers many people face to accessing services, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Currently SYEDA are operating in four schools across the city, but well-trained eating disorder specialists should be in every school, ready to spot behaviours and provide proactive specialist support. But without immediate, ring-fenced funding, which reaches front-line services in full, this level of care is impossible to deliver.

Ahead of the Government’s budget earlier this year, I coordinated a letter, signed by 40 MPs and Lords, calling for an emergency funding package for eating disorder services. This, I hoped, would be an opportunity for the Government to finally face up to the scale of the crisis and begin work to correct it. Sadly, these calls were ignored. Instead the Government “confirmed” £79 million funding to boost Children's Mental Health Support, funding already announced last year.

A month on, the urgent need for funding has only become more apparent. Like many, I was incredibly saddened to hear of the passing of Nikki Grahame after her struggle with anorexia. I was also incredibly angry to hear about the difficulties she faced accessing support.

As we emerge from this crisis, we must address the chronic underfunding of our country's mental health services, reverse the terrifying trends, and give our vital frontline eating disorder specialists the support they need to continue their life saving work.

If you have, or are worried about, developing an eating disorder, there are lots of services you can call.

Beat Helpline

Adult: 0808-801-0677 - [email protected]

Youth: 0808-801-0711 - [email protected]

Samaritans, 24-hr service, on 116 123

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