There has been a huge increase in the number of children needing treatment for serious mental health issues including eating disorders, figures reveal.
Referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under-18s rose by 39 per cent in a year to more than a million (1,169,515) in 2021/22, according to analysis of NHS data by the PA news agency.
This contrasts with the previous year 2020/21 during the pandemic, when the figure was 839,570. In 2019/20 there were 850,741 referrals.
The statistics for England include children who are suicidal, self-harming, suffering serious depression or anxiety, and those with eating disorders.
Referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under-18s rose by 39 per cent in a year to more than a million (1,169,515) in 2021/22. This contrasts with the previous year 2020/21 during the pandemic, when the figure was 839,570. In 2019/20 there were 850,741 referrals
Meanwhile, hospital admissions for eating disorders are rising among children and young people, analysis of NHS Digital data shows.
Among under-18s, there were 7,719 admissions in 2021/22, up from 6,079 the previous year and 4,232 in 2019/20 — an 82 per cent rise across two years.
From April to October 2022 — the most recent data available — there were 3,456 admissions, up 38 per cent from 2,508 for the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
There were 3,011 admissions from April to October 2020, and 4,600 for the same period in 2021 when the full effects of the pandemic were felt.
For people of all ages, including adults, the data suggests 2022/23 could see the highest number of hospital admissions for eating disorders.
From April to October 2022, there were 15,083 admissions, compared with 28,436 for the whole of the previous year (2021/22).
A year earlier there were 23,351 admissions, and in 2019/20 there were 20,650, marking a 38 per cent rise between 2019/20 and 2021/22.
Dr Elaine Lockhart, chairwoman of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the rise in referrals for children and young people reflects a ‘whole range’ of illnesses.
She said ‘specialist services are needing to respond to the most urgent and the most unwell’, including youngsters who have psychosis, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety disorder.
Dr Lockhart said children and young people’s mental health had been getting worse before the pandemic, with increasing social inequality, austerity and online harm playing a role.
Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwmoman of the eating disorders faculty at the college, said patients seen ‘on the front line… are usually quite severely ill’ and services are struggling to meet demand.
She said a number of factors can affect a child’s chance of developing an eating disorder, such as genetics, social media, anxiety (including from the pandemic) and weight-loss advertising.
She added: ‘The numbers, the trends, are going going up. There definitely has been an impact of the pandemic but the trends have been going up since way before then.
‘There is no indication that the figures will go down without a strategy that includes prevention, improved treatment, better access to effective inpatient treatment and better research facilities.’
Dr Ayton said the figures on hospital admissions for children and young people were ‘utterly heart-breaking’, adding: ‘Without early support eating disorders become much worse and harder to treat, with possible life-altering consequences.
‘If the Government and NHS leaders are serious about dealing with this ongoing eating disorders crisis, they must ensure specialist services are supported with the same level of focus given to elective care.’
The data shows that anorexia is the most common eating disorder leading to hospital admission among all ages, with 10,808 admissions in 2021/22.
Bulimia is the next most common, with 5,563, while other eating disorders accounted for 12,893 admissions.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: ‘Improving eating disorders services is a key priority and we’re investing £53million per year in children and young people’s community eating disorder services to increase capacity in 70 community teams across the country.
‘We are already investing £2.3billion a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access support by 2024 — and we’re aiming to grow the mental health workforce by 27,000 more staff by this time too.’