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Just £1.13 spent on research per person with an eating disorder, new report finds

UK-based funders invested an average of just £1.13 per person with an eating disorder per year between 2009 and 2019, according to a new report published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on eating disorders.

The ‘Breaking the Cycle’ report, compiled by Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, on behalf of the APPG, sets out the findings and recommendations from the APPG’s inquiry into UK research funding, conducted from December 2020 to Spring 2021. 

Despite the prevalence and severity of eating disorders, the research field receives little funding. Eating disorders account for around 9% of the total number of people with a mental health condition in the UK, but from 2015-2019, they accounted for just 1% of the UK’s already severely limited mental health research funding. 

The APPG argues that the ambition for UK investment in eating disorder research should be at least £50 to £100 million per year, in light of the funding awarded to other serious health conditions that affect a similar number of people. 

The report highlights the need for a particular focus on research with under-represented groups, including males, people from ethnic minorities, and people with binge eating disorder, amongst others. 

The inquiry also revealed that there is a vicious cycle of underfunding in UK eating disorder research, whereby a chronic lack of funding has resulted in a small number of active researchers and research centres in the UK, meaning little research is published. 

This cycle of underfunding has helped stigmatising attitudes persist, including the perception that the field is a less important area of study, and leaves it ill-equipped to compete successfully for funding.

The report makes recommendations for research funders, universities, the NHS and researchers, setting out how together they can break the cycle of underfunding. These include:

Wera Hobhouse, Chair of the APPG on eating disorders said: ‘The APPG’s targeted actions call together funders, researchers and people with lived experience to develop a long-term UK eating disorder research strategy. Without investment in research, eating disorders will continue to represent a significant public health issue, devastating millions of lives while leading to high costs to the NHS and the UK economy.’ 

Beat’s Director of External Affairs, Tom Quinn said: ‘Eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that impact 1.25 million people at any time and their families. Quality research is crucial for understanding what causes eating disorders, how to best to provide treatment, and ideally how to prevent them from developing. What has already been achieved with such little funding shows the great potential for UK researchers to achieve major breakthroughs, with the right financial support. 

‘The need for advances in research has become even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic, as referrals to eating disorder services and hospital admissions have continued to rise. At its peak, Beat support services experienced an over 300% increase in demand during in March 2021, in comparison to pre-pandemic levels.’ 

Dr Dasha Nicholls, Clinical Reader in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry said: ‘Eating disorders are a public health issue with high economic and personal cost. Addressing years of underfunding for eating disorder research has to be a priority if current and future generations of young people are to be spared the tragic consequences on their lives and their families of these devastating illnesses. Research activity and capacity in the field, relative to disorders of comparable severity and impact, is woefully inadequate and needs targeted investment.’

Read the full APPG report here.

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