Lockdowns to blame for eating disorder crisis

Time spent online and mobile phone ownership have increased among children during lockdown.
Time spent online and mobile phone ownership have increased among children during lockdown.

Mental Health minister says children as young as five are suffering under Covid restrictions

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Lockdowns are to blame for a “rapid increase” in demand for eating disorder services, MPs have heard.

Mental Health minister Nadine Dorries said the increase had come during the Covid-19 pandemic. Forcing people suffering with eating disorders to stay at home puts them under "particular pressure", she claimed.

She said children as young as five were suffering and were “throwing the contents of their lunchbox in the bin”.

Ms Dorries also said that the impact of social media was “huge”.

It comes as Professor Tim Kendall, national clinical director for mental health at NHS England, said he was not satisfied that the health service was doing well enough to detect eating disorders.

Stories have emerged of children throwing away their school lunches, due to body image issues.
Stories have emerged of children throwing away their school lunches, due to body image issues.

Prof Kendall told the Health and Social Care Committee of MPs: “We have got another issue, which is detecting this kind of problem, eating disorders, across the whole of the health service, and I’m not satisfied that we’re doing that well enough. That’s primary care as well as in areas like emergency rooms and so on.”

Ms Dorries said that eating disorders had been “the biggest issue” recently, adding: “We’ve seen a 22% increase in demand just over the past 11 months in eating disorder referrals and demand for services.

“It’s a very complex issue. It surrounds lots of things such as body image, social media, but lockdown brought a particular pressure and a particular strain on those young women who had been concealing, managing, living with eating disorders, and it kind of came to a crisis point during lockdown.”

She added: “You know, children as young as five disposing the contents of their lunchbox in the bin and leaving the wrappers in to tell teachers that they’d eaten what was in the lunchbox when they hadn’t.”

Asked to what extent the online world has an influence on eating disorders, anxiety, depression and self-harm, Ms Dorries said: “Huge. I saw recently a supermodel who had given birth 48 hours previously sat in a bikini by a swimming pool – that was not her body. That was absolutely a touched-up, enhanced, whatever they do to photographs, that was it.

“And I just couldn’t help think that any pregnant woman who is looking at social media accounts who sees that will believe that that is what she should be looking like 48 hours after she has a baby.”

We've seen a 22% increase in demand just over the past 11 months in eating disorder referrals

Nadine Dorries, Mental Health minister

She added: “I don’t think you can blame social media per se, but I think it would be absolutely naive to say that there is no link between the eating disorder crisis that we have, and we saw happening before the pandemic even struck – not a crisis at that time but certainly we saw the uptick and the escalation, it would be naive to say that there is no causal link between the number of young people using Instagram and other social media accounts and looking at these perfect body images and believing that that’s what their body should look like.”

Claire Murdoch, national mental health director at NHS England, said children have “sky high” expectations on them.

“I will continue to hold industry’s feet to the fire because I think our young are in the grip of a triple lock, where they have sky high expectations on them,” she said.

“People pumping notions of short-term cuts to health and happiness – whether it’s their weight or idealised lifestyle, and these kinds of ever-present pressures.

“So whether it’s Love Island, whether it’s other diet products, whether it’s other social media … it seems to me that we have to drive very hard support around parents and schools and young people themselves, to raise awareness, actually not only about eating disorders but very significantly so.”

It comes as the NHS in England announced £40 million of additional funding for mental health care for children and young people, part of which is to bolster eating disorder services.