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Health and Social Care

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:10 pm on 16th January 2020.

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Photo of Julie Elliott Julie Elliott Labour, Sunderland Central 2:10 pm, 16th January 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I will take that amount of time.

I want to speak today on eating disorders, an issue that is important to me and many of my constituents and friends who have approached me about the subject. Awareness of mental health issues has been on the rise, with recent examples such as the Football Association’s Heads Up campaign encouraging people to take a minute out of their lives to think about their mental health. The ongoing work of organisations such as Mind and Beat has meant good progress on combating the stigma of mental health issues and informing the public about the importance of taking care of mental health.

There is undoubtedly still a lot of work to do on eating disorders. It is such an incredibly important and pressing issue, and at the same time so preventable with proper support, funding and attention, that I am disappointed that it was not named in the Gracious Speech as a subject on its own. The only mention of mental health is:

“My Ministers will continue work to reform the Mental Health Act.”

I very much hope that eating disorders will be part of the reform.

There is a major problem with the way eating disorders are dealt with in this country. From poor staffing levels to the way disorders are diagnosed and the wait to be treated, too many people who need treatment urgently do not get it. More than 1 million people in the UK suffer from an eating disorder and it is about time they got the services they deserve.

As Hope Virgo has shown in her excellent Dump The Scales campaign about the diagnosis of eating disorders, multitudes of people around the country are being turned away by their GPs as a result of their body mass index not being low enough. They are being refused treatment, not because of any psychological assessment, but because their weight is not low enough. Although National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines advise against the use of single measures such as BMI to determine whether to offer treatment, that does not mean it does not happen. As much as I would like to present case study after case study of young people being turned away from treatment because they were not considered ill enough, only to go on to do more damage to their bodies in the hope of actually receiving treatment, time does not allow it. But it happens, and that has to change. It is shocking that it has happened once, but we are talking about hundreds of people being turned away from services they desperately need.

Those first connections with medical professionals are so important, not least because of the bravery shown by sufferers in seeking help and talking about their illness, but also because the earlier the treatment is administered, the more effective it can be. Identifying problems as early as possible does not just allow people to be treated quickly and more efficiently, but can mitigate the long-term effects of illness and decrease the chances of relapse. Early intervention is the key to proper treatment for those suffering from eating disorders. It might mean that the person seeking help no longer needs a hospital stay, or that they recover quicker, or that they feel stronger fighting their illness knowing they have the support behind them that they need. That is why the Government need to do a full review of treatment and care pathways for people who suffer from eating disorders and ensure that there are services that people can approach, and that they can be treated quickly and effectively.

However, there is also a big variety in quality and speed of treatment depending on where people live in the country. We need to see the end of the postcode lottery, which means that the quality and speed of care is based on where people live and what age they are, and sometimes ends in those lucky enough to be referred being sent to hospitals more than 200 miles from where they live. Only yesterday, I saw a letter to a young woman who, after an urgent referral, has been told she should expect an 18-month wait to be seen by a psychological therapist. That is truly shocking. I therefore fully agree with the calls on the Government by leading eating disorder charity Beat to hold the NHS to account for comprehensive implementation of the access and waiting time standard for children and young people in every region and community.

There is desperate need for direct investment in a fully supported NHS that does not need to divert the funds assigned to mental health to other areas to plug massive funding deficits in an attempt to continue to provide basic care.

We also need to ensure that our medical professionals understand the signs of eating disorders and the pathways available. Trainee doctors can receive as little as two hours’ training on eating disorders throughout their several years of training. We need to invest in services to get parity of esteem for mental and physical health, and there are simply not enough beds to deal with the growing demand from those suffering from eating disorders and those who need mental health treatment more generally.

We need more staff. Those who work for the NHS are stretched as it is, and we need more staff in frontline services to help ease the pressure and ensure that treatment is effective and quick. We need more and proper support in our schools. I implore the Government to act on those measures.