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Eating disorders ‘risen considerably’ during the pandemic, says Priory psychiatrist

  • Significant increase in referrals for all types of eating disorder, both among new patients and those whose conditions have either worsened or relapsed
  • 61% increase in enquiries at private clinics around anorexia and 26% increase in Binge Eating Disorder enquiries
  • Priory consultant Dr Lorna Richards says Binge Eating Disorder is just one significant issue that has emerged under lockdown
  • People focusing on food can be a way of trying to exert control over an uncertain situation, she says

An expert has spoken of a significant increase in eating disorder referrals – and explained how focusing on food and weight, either by over-eating or restricting food intake, can be seen by those with eating disorders as a way to “cope” with the pandemic.

Dr Lorna Richards cited a number of factors for the rise including “fear and uncertainty, fuelling anxiety symptoms”, a feeling of not being in control, social isolation, and changes to people’s routine and home lives.

“There has also been widespread concern about lack of activity, and about weight gain during periods of lockdown, which have seen the nation both dieting, and exercising, en masse,” she said.

“Eating disorders have thrived in this environment, as the focus on eating and weight control becomes a way of coping.”

Last year Priory Group saw a 61% increase in the number of enquiries it received about treatment for anorexia nervosa at its private clinics, compared to 2019, and a rise of more than a quarter (26%) in the number of enquiries it received regarding treatment for binge eating disorder. 

Dr Richards specialises in adult eating disorders at Priory’s Woking Hospital and Priory’s Lifeworks and has been involved in the development of NHS national guidelines and policy around eating disorders.

She says that for some people, focusing on food, either by restricting, over-eating or using other weight control measures such as purging and over-exercising, can be used as a way of “coping” and provide “a sense of control or mastery”.

She added: “Since the early summer of 2020, I have seen a huge increase in referrals from people with pre-existing disorders who have deteriorated since the pandemic emerged.

“I have also seen an increase in new patients - specifically people, who, during the first lockdown, were starting to develop eating disorders for the first time. For those who are vulnerable to developing an eating disorder, there have just been too many challenges and they are ongoing.”

Dr Richards comments came as Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, spoke of a growing number of young people being referred for eating disorders needing urgent help.

He told the Commons health and social care committee: “The area, frankly, in mental health services where we are seeing a real pressure is increasing urgent referrals for eating disorder services.”

Dr Richards, who treats adults, said: “Inpatient treatment has also been more challenging due to infection control measures; patients have not been able to have leave or visitors, and staff need to wear masks. It is difficult, but sometimes in-patient treatment is the best way to provide the level of care that people need.”

What is Binge Eating?

Dr Richards says: “We all need a degree of certainty and security, and the more things that are uncertain to us or feel unsafe, the more we feel a need to ‘control’. We do it in different ways. Some might be more obsessionally tidy, or ‘helicopter’ around their children, or try to maintain control in relationships or the workplace.

“Those with eating disorders turn to controlling their diet or using food in unhealthy ways like binge eating, purging or exercising. It can provide a structure, routine and focus for the day, as well as a distraction from anxious thoughts.”

She said shopping habits had also changed, with families doing large online shops, and this had an impact. “For someone with binge eating disorder this can feel overwhelming and increase the likelihood of binge episodes.”

Dr Richards added: “Binge eating disorder affects adults of both genders. Bingeing means eating an objectively excessive amount of food and there is an element of compulsion to it, so you feel like you can’t control yourself.

“There are two key triggers; when people are restricting their intake in an attempt to lose weight, this triggers a hunger response with an increased risk of overeating when food becomes available.

“The other trigger is psychological; people may binge eat to manage difficult emotions or indeed to numb them. When people are planning a binge, it can be a fantastic distraction from other things that are going on. It is usually done in secret and there is a huge amount of shame, with people believing that others judge them as greedy and lacking all self-control. The shame that everyone with an eating disorder feels often prevents them from accessing help.”

Dr Richard’s advice:

: Anyone who notices that they are focusing more on eating and weight, whose eating habits or weight have changed or is concerned in any way should reach out for help

: Children, young people and adults can consult the Beat charity’s website and local support groups, and should speak with their GP who may refer them for online therapy

: Eating disorders are serious illnesses and can lead to significant problems with physical and mental health as well as relationships, and the ability to study or work

: The longer you leave it the more entrenched the eating disordered way of thinking and behaving becomes and it is harder to make changes and you are less likely to fully recover.

Watch videos of Dr Lorna Richards talking about eating disorders

 

·         https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aDJi6-91GkQ&t – Dr Richards on eating disorders during the pandemic

·         https://vimeo.com/336104400 - Dr Richards on eating disorders and self-identity

Notes to editors

Photo attached of Dr Lorna Richards

For further information, or to interview Dr Richards, please contact communications@priorygroup.com

About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK, caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, anxiety, drugs and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into four divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, adult care and the Middle East.

 

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