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90% rise in eating disorder cases 'is just tip of iceberg' in Northern Ireland


Aileen Ui Dhonnghaile

Aileen Ui Dhonnghaile

Aileen Ui Dhonnghaile

The number of people diagnosed with eating disorders in Northern Ireland has almost doubled in the last seven years.

All age groups have seen a rise, official figures show.

In 2011/12, 272 people were diagnosed, but that had jumped to 518 in 2018/19 - up by 90%.

Aileen Ui Dhonnghaile, from the charity Eating Disorders NI, fears the figures are "just the tip of the iceberg".

The Department of Health (DoH) said the increase in people requiring hospital admission for eating disorders is "concerning", but reflects greater awareness of the condition.

It is aiming to minimise hospital admissions by promoting early intervention and providing more community services.

Figures released to this newspaper show:

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  • A significant gender disparity - of the 272 people diagnosed in 2011/12, only 16 were men, while of the 518 patients in 2018/19, just 53 were male.
  • Those aged between 10 and 19 who were diagnosed increased from 52 in 2011/12 to 81 in 2018/19.
  • There were 1,587 hospital bed days for those diagnosed in 2011/12 and that rose to 2,292 in 2018/19.
  • Emergency cases drastically increased from 225 seven years ago to 452 last year.

Eating disorders can include anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating.

While there is a rise in diagnoses among young people, figures show older people are increasingly being affected too.

In 2011/12 there were no recorded cases of anyone being diagnosed with an eating disorder aged 60 and over.

However, eight people aged between 60-69, seven aged between (70-79) and seven (80+) were diagnosed in 2018/19.

Overall, the mean age of patients diagnosed was 31 in 2011/12, rising to 35 in 2018/19.

The rise in Northern Ireland comes after figures released by the NHS showed a 37% increase in hospital admissions in England for eating disorders in just two years.

Ms Ui Dhonnghaile said the rise here was "not surprising", revealing that Eating Disorders NI has been supporting more and more people in recent years.

"We are struggling to keep up," the charity development officer (left) explained.

"We get part of our funding from the Department of Health and the Health Board and some of our funding was cut two-and-a-half years ago."

Ms Ui Dhonnghaile continued: "When eating disorder services were set up here in 2006, there was meant to be a really big investment into it and the teams involved.

"It was meant to cover all eating disorders so when the teams were set up binge eating disorder didn't even get a look in.

"There are no professional services for binge eating disorder in the specialist eating disorder services.

"That's part of the reason why we set up the online support group last year.

"These figures may not include binge eating disorder."

Ms Ui Dhonnghaile added that while the figures have drastically increased since 2011/12, the number could be much higher again as many people are coming to the organisation for help first before going to a hospital.

"There is a lot of stigma attached to eating disorders and people are afraid to go to their GP in case they aren't taken seriously enough," she added.

A DoH spokesperson said local services providing support for those suffering from eating disorders receive approximately £3m per year.

This funding goes towards community-based eating disorder services, expert medical support, medical and inpatient care and support to community and voluntary sector support services.

They explained: "Work is ongoing to improve service provision regionally and the department has already asked the Health and Social Care Board and Public Health Agency to consider future service models for eating disorder services.

"(This includes) the feasibility of a local specialist eating disorder hospital, further development of intensive day treatments, additional multi-disciplinary staffing for community-based services, and additional peer and family carer support services."

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