Shock rise in eating disorders sparks call for specialist unit
More should be done to help those with eating disorders, the SDLP's health spokesperson has said, as new figures show a dramatic increase in the number of new patients presenting with such disorders in Northern Ireland.
The figures were revealed by Health Minister Michelle O'Neill in response to an Assembly question submitted by the MLA Mark H Durkan.
According to the figures, a total of 505 new patients received treatment for eating disorders between 2015 and 2016.
This is a dramatic increase from the previous year, in which 452 new patients were treated.
Between 2013 and 2014 the number was substantially lower, at 386.
Between 2012 and 2013 the figure was 327, a decrease from 348 between 2011 and 2012.
"This increase is deeply regrettable and something that should set off warning alarms within the Department of Health," Mr Durkan said.
"It must be noted that the Minister's response shows the number of new people receiving treatment each year and does not detail the total number of people struggling with eating disorders."
In his question, Mr Durkan had asked for a breakdown of the numbers according to gender, but this was not available.
"I was shocked that the department were unable to detail the gender breakdown in these figures, given that eating disorders can affect men and women in different ways and this should be a consideration when developing a plan.
"We must also examine the age range of those affected."
He urged the minister to rethink her mental health strategy to bring down the numbers.
"A specialist unit for more severe cases should be on the table, as should increasing support for patients and their families," he said.
"Crucially, at a time when we are telling people to seek help for mental health problems, we must ensure that the help we provide is properly funded and resourced.
"Currently, mental health services receive only 5.5% of the healthcare budget, despite accounting for 25% or all healthcare cases.
"We need a culture change within the health service that recognises that mental health issues can be as debilitating and dangerous as physical conditions. They must be treated as such."
The Department of Health was not immediately available for comment.
In a TV documentary screened earlier this year, the family of Belfast teenager Emily Marsh revealed that she has spent two years hospitalised in London for an eating disorder, because no specialist treatment is available in Northern Ireland.