The hidden cost of coronavirus on treatment for eating disorders

What impact has the pandemic had on those with eating disorders? (Picture: Getty/

Increased anxiety has been a crippling consequence of the pandemic, but new stats show eating disorder sufferers are among some of the hardest hit.

Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity, reported a massive 140% rise in contact to their UK helpline services from February to November 2020, which is down to a number of factors, says Rebecca Willgress, a spokesperson for Beat.

‘At the very beginning there was the loss of normal routine, as well as not being able to exercise as much,’ she explains. ‘Empty shelves in supermarkets meant those on an eating plan had trouble accessing certain foods, and then being distanced from support networks including friends and family has been a serious effect of lockdown too.’

The first brave step for many seeking help is a visit to their GP, however with NHS specialist support services under serious strain, a strict criteria based on BMI and disordered behaviours is in place to ensure that only those deemed most desperately in need of care receive referrals.

Dr Frances Yarlett, a GP based in Sheffield acknowledges how complex the issue is.

‘If you’re managing a patient you clearly think has disordered eating but they don’t quite hit the referral criteria for hospital care it can be quite challenging,’ Dr Frances tells ‘The move to telephone appointments has also made it more difficult to see what’s really going on with patients; you have to really put your trust in them to be open with you.’

For those who don’t meet the criteria for a referral, it can send a dangerous message, something that 29-year-old Jess Flory, a now-recovered anorexia sufferer, felt fueled her eating disorder.

Jess, a recovered eating disorder survivor, felt like she hadn’t lost ‘enough’ wait to be ‘worthy of treatment’ (Picture: Jess Flory)

Jess says: ‘Not receiving a serious referral felt like I was being told I hadn’t lost enough weight or wasn’t worthy of treatment, especially as I had previously been hospitalised with anorexia as a teen.

‘Now that I’ve recovered, I know that’s not true, but for a lot of people I imagine it could encourage them to get sicker to get the help they need.’

Fortunately, other help is available from self-referral community and voluntary support services.

South Yorkshire Eating Disorder Association (SYEDA) is an independent charity Dr Yarlett often signposts patients to, but due to overwhelming demand during the pandemic they had to temporarily close their waiting list to new referrals.

Chris Hood, SYEDA CEO, says despite bringing more specialists onboard to cope, the level of demand for their services significantly exceeded their capacity to treat people.

‘Once someone has made the very difficult decision that they need support it’s important to maintain momentum and get them help as soon as possible,’ he notes. ‘We focus on early intervention, but as our waiting list time increased to up to eight months, it felt disingenuous to allow people to come for an assessment without assurance that we could treat them within a reasonable timeframe.’

Support outside of the NHS and local charities comes from the likes of Beat. The national charity relies heavily on a range of funding and while their community fundraising pot took a huge hit from the pandemic with the cancellation of the London Marathon, they have received a collective £1.5million from The Tampon Tax, both the Welsh and Scottish Governments, The Department for Health and Social Care and The Lottery.

This much-needed cash has allowed Beat to continue providing all of its services and launch new support services, including; a Coronavirus online support group, telephone advice and coaching services for sufferers and carers, extending their phone helpline opening hours and more.

While charities certainly play a vital part in firefighting the ever-growing eating disorder blaze, it’s clear more intensive support is required.

Deanne Jade is a psychologist and Founder of National Centre for Eating Disorders (NCED) who has been working in the field for 40 years. She currently supervises NHS staff treating eating disorders, seeing first-hand the challenges that services are facing.

‘One of the small dedicated NHS teams I’m working with has 40 people on their waiting list, so even if they had ten times the funding they would not be able to meet demand,’ she says.

The very nature of eating disorders makes them difficult to treat; patients often appear to be getting better but are still being ruled by negative thoughts or behaviours around food.

This is known as quasi recovery, something that Jess experienced for many years.

Jess says it’s easy to mistake quasi recovery for being genuinely better

‘I wasn’t free,’ she says. ‘If I was going out for a meal I would skip breakfast and lunch; I would eat foods I used to be scared of, but then exercise every day and not have a day off – that’s not normal behaviour, but I looked like I was doing OK.’

To fully treat patients more specialists are needed, as is more training for doctors and counsellors, something Dr Yarlett would welcome.

She says: ‘If GPs had more specific training for psychiatric problems like eating disorders we might be able better support patients in primary care for longer before they need to go to other services.’

For Jess, healing from her eating disorder happened through realising the physical toll anorexia had taken on her body. She tells us: ‘What really stopped that cycle for me was realising my body wasn’t working properly – I wasn’t having periods and I wanted to have a family, so something had to change.’

The most important thing to remember is that recovery is possible; Jess is now happy, healthy, and pregnant with a baby girl due in April.

For those suffering or worried about a loved one Dr Yarlett says reaching out is essential.

‘There’s no right or wrong with where to go for help,’ she says. ‘The most important thing is that you do seek help – contact your GP, call the Beat helpline, go to your local eating disorder support charity.’

Help for those with eating disorders:

Helpful information and support for sufferers of eating disorders and those worried about a loved one is available on the following links and numbers.

Beat: 0808 801 0677

National Centre for Eating Disorders helpline: 0845 838 2040

Seed helpline: 01482 718130

Click here to search for your local eating disorder support charity.

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