I would like to thank the honourable member for securing this important – and extremely timely – debate.
Over the past five months, I have been campaigning to raise awareness of eating disorders and advocate better treatment for these life-threatening conditions. I have spoken before in this place about the need to recognise eating disorders early. Stories from people, like Hope Virgo, who had an eating disorder and was turned away by her GP, remind us that there is still a long way to go to ensure that our current guidelines are being implemented. At the heart of any solution to improving eating disorder treatment lies education - the education of our medical staff and education of society about these conditions.
Too often eating disorders are trivialised and seen as an illness which exclusively affects one type of person. This is reinforced by the research that was released this week by the charity Beat which found that discrimination was ingrained in the way we view eating disorders. Beat's research found that four in ten people believed that eating disorders are more common amongst white people and nearly 30% thought that eating disorders are most likely to affect people of higher socio-economic status. The reality is that eating disorders don’t discriminate.
The tragedy of eating disorders is that they are preventable. By focusing on early intervention, the numbers of those suffering from these disorders could be greatly reduced. However, the stereotypes around eating disorders mean that certain people are far less likely to recognize the condition and seek, or be referred to, treatment.
For example, ethnic minorities are substantially less likely to be referred to eating disorder services than white patients. Once referred, ethnic minorities as well as white patients will receive the same treatment. The central problem exists in what doctors and the public understand about the population of people who suffer from eating disorders.
On average, medical students receive less than two hours of teaching on eating disorders throughout their entire training as undergraduates. Research shows that within all psychological disorders, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate. We therefore must invest in further education for our medical students, and qualified doctors. By improving training, we will be able to increase early intervention and give those suffering the help they need. Eating disorders are not going away – in fact admission rates for these conditions have more than doubled since 2011.
The networks of family and friends which surround those with eating disorders make a great deal of difference to both recognising the condition and receiving the correct help. Research has been done on specialist outpatient family intervention in children. This has been highly effective, reducing the need for impatient care and in turn easing the pressure on our national health service.
This research identifies the importance of a truly joined up approach to recovery – ensuring that the community around an individual with an eating disorder is both supportive and supported by the medical team. These types of programmes, which are being run in select locations across this country, must be extended in response to their positive outcomes.
Currently treatment for eating disorders is a post code lottery - where guidelines are not enforced and waiting times can be anywhere from one month to a year. Location is a huge part of it but if you don’t fit society's established conception of who should have an eating disorder, treatment is even harder to come by. 25% of people suffering with an eating disorder are male and that number is on the rise, despite widespread perception that eating disorders are the exclusive property of women and young girls.
We must set standards and deliver training which will help doctors and medical staff to identify people who need treatment, regardless of any pre- conceived stereotypes. Additionally, it is vital that we continue to listen to the stories of real people who have suffered with eating disorders and hear what they have to say about their experiences of the system.
Eating disorders don’t discriminate and can destroy lives if they are not identified early enough. It is time that this Government took them seriously and pledged to improve eating disorder education, both for the public, and for those who work on the front lines of this crisis.
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