We know that treating people with eating disorders quickly gives the best possible chance of recovery. Unfortunately, on average over three years pass between the symptoms of an eating disorder emerging and treatment starting.* The pandemic exacerbated this and there are still huge backlogs for people awaiting treatment.
Lives are put at risk by these long waiting times. This is unacceptable and we must change it.
We must ensure that our eating disorder services are equipped to cope with the increase in demand seen since the start of the pandemic. We need to ensure that when someone first reaches out for help, they receive the right support and that a referral doesn’t mean many months spent on a waiting list.
The situation varies between the nations of the UK, and what we need to do to make the changes we want to see will differ. On the next page you will find a letter that we have drafted to MPs in England. If you are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland please get in touch with the team to find out more about what we are doing and how you can take action in your nation.
* Beat (2017) - Delaying for years, denied for months
A national standard would drive extra focus and funding towards these services. This would enable many more adults across England to quickly access effective treatment, giving them the best chance of recovery, and minimising the need for costly hospital admissions.
In January 2019, the NHS Long Term Plan set out national ambitions for the next ten years of the NHS in England and described mental health as a key priority. The accompanying ‘NHS Mental Health Implementation Plan’ outlined promising plans and investment to improve support and treatment for people with eating disorders.
In the same year, NHS England published commissioning guidance outlining what patients and carers should be able to expect from NHS adult eating disorder services.
Also in 2019, the NHS first indicated that waiting times targets could be introduced for adults with eating disorders in England. The Interim Report of the NHS’s 'Clinically-led Review of NHS Access Standards’ stated that four-week waiting time targets for adult and older adult community mental health teams, including for adults with eating disorders, would be tested in selected local areas.
In 2021 Beat responded to a consultation conducted by NHS England on the design of these proposed new standards. This included one that adults and older adults referred to community-based services for non-urgent mental health care should start to receive help within four weeks. In our response we raised concerns about potential loopholes, calling for a target based on access to evidence-based treatment (rather than merely, for example. the creation of a care plan). We also called on them to publish comprehensive data on waiting times for adults referred for eating disorder treatment.
In 2022 NHS England responded to the consultation feedback, refining their proposals. Disappointingly they did not pledge to address the loopholes we identified in the proposed standard. They promised to collect data specifically about the waiting times being experienced by adults with eating disorders, as part of their work to implement the new standards.
In August 2023, the Government gave an update. They said that NHS England will publish waiting times statistics for Urgent and Emergency mental health care by the end of September 2023, and for adult community mental health care by the end of March 2024. This could be an important first step towards the introduction of the proposed targets across England.
Beat continues to call on the Government and NHS England to introduce and fully fund an ambitious new access and waiting time standard, setting a clear expectation that adults with eating disorders should be able to access evidence-based treatment within a maximum of 4 weeks from referral.
In 2018, the Welsh Eating Disorder Service Review made 22 recommendations, including that waiting time targets for people of all ages were introduced in Wales.
Work is underway to examine what progress has been made since the review.
In March 2021, the Scottish Eating Disorder Services Review was published, with 15 recommendations made.
There is now a national implementation group in place.
In March 2020, the Mental Health Action Plan was published, a specific review of eating disorder services followed this in June 2021.
A new Mental Health Strategy for 2021-2031 was published on 29 June 2021.
In order to demonstrate the impact of eating disorders on sufferers and their families, and to highlight where change is needed, we undertook a large research programme during 2017, resulting in the Delaying for Years, Denied for Months report. Data was reanalysed for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and presented in separate, shorter reports.
In 2018/2019 Beat conducted research into access, waiting times and staffing levels at NHS adult community eating disorder services in England. The findings demonstrate alarming discrepancies in access to specialist treatment, waiting times and staffing levels at adult eating disorder services in England. Our Lives at Risk briefing outlines the key findings and our recommendations for Government and the NHS in England.