Eating Disorders Not Too Serious for NHS

eating disorders

Women’s fashion magazine Cosmopolitan has accused National Health Services (NHS) in the United Kingdom of failing thousands of women suffering from eating disorders. Claiming that the NHS often dismissed eating disorders as “not too serious,” the magazine has urged general practitioners (GPs) to be more serious about the potentially fatal disorders. The appeal comes in the wake of a joint campaign by Cosmopolitan and eating disorder charity BEAT to increase awareness about the highly misunderstood nature of the illness.

The campaign follows BEAT’s recent claim that top independent schools in the UK were being swept by an epidemic of anorexia. It has also alleged that many of these schools were in denial about the extent of eating disorders and mental health problems among their students. The fastest growing users of mental health services, BEAT said, were girls belonging to aspirational families.

Louise Court, the editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan has slammed the ‘tick-box culture’ in the NHS saying many sufferers were ignored by doctors until they showed extremely high levels of physical malnourishment. While there are around 1.6 million people in the UK suffering from eating disorders, only an estimated half are given accurate diagnoses of either anorexia or bulimia. The remaining are blindly categorized as suffering from Eating Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (EDNOS).

Court acknowledged the work done by the NHS in healthcare but felt the system failed so many men and women categorized as EDNOS sufferers. They aren’t just being “funny” about food and are seriously ill people who have mostly suffered in silence their entire lives. Those with EDNOS need treatment not in a year’s time but now, she emphasized. The campaign is aimed at persuading doctors to look beyond ticking boxes when it came to eating disorders and widening treatment options.

Going by current NHS guidelines, women can be diagnosed as anorexic only if their body weight is at least 15 percent below the average; they are so ill they don’t menstruate and they suffer from distortion of body image. To be diagnosed with bulimia, patients should show irresistible food cravings that lead to binge eating. They must have tried to lose weight afterwards through purging or consumption of diet pills and must weigh far below normal at the time of assessment. Experts have criticized the guidelines for being overly restrictive – they led to doctors turning away those who are actually sick, but do not fit these categories easily.

The joint campaign that seeks to stop the NHS from dismissing eating disorders as “not too serious” has received support from Clare Gerada, a former chairman of the Council of the Royal College of GPs. Norman Lamb, the minister for care and support, has also endorsed the campaign.

Clare Gerada has pointed out that Britons suffering from eating disorders did face a lengthy waiting period before being treated by the NHS. Calling it a mental health disorder, Gerada said that many people who fell outside the diagnostic label cannot access treatment until their condition fatally worsened. Most go untreated entirely, she added.

At the moment, there is a 17-week waiting list for patients seeking cognitive behavioral therapy. Patients with a broken limbs wouldn’t have to wait that long, felt Gerada, who thinks mental health must be treated at the same level physical health is and that it required better investment.

Minister Norman Lamb has assured that the government in UK was working on setting up a waiting time standard for people with mental health problems. Once the standard is in place, mental health patients can claim the right to be treated as quickly as patients suffering from physical health problems. Lamb said the government was determined to end the stigma encompassing mental health problems, including eating disorders. He also acknowledged the enormous courage needed for eating disorder patients to seek medical help and promised that the government will ensure their symptoms are recognized and treated quickly. 

According to BEAT, one in five of the most serious cases of eating disorders resulted in deaths (because of physical consequences or suicide) making it the top among mental health problems that were fatal. The campaign will work towards making NHS GPs give up the habit of dismissing eating disorders for not being serious enough.

By Aruna Iyer

The Telegraph
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London Evening Standard

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