A London hospital that specialises in treating teenagers with eating disorders has revealed a big increase in requests for help.
Experts at the Royal Free said it was no longer the “middle class perfectionist girl” who sought help. Patients now come from diverse backgrounds – and occasionally include boys.
Samantha Swinglehurst, the trust’s lead nurse for eating disorders, told the Standard: “In 2011 we had one or two referrals a week. Now every week we get between six and 11 families. We are a victim of our own success. We are now at the point where we need better premises. We are inundated with referrals.”
A number of young patients at the hospital launched a Twitter campaign (above) to encourage people to talk about eating disorders, to dispel myths and offer support to others with the condition. Using the hashtag #FREEthebutterfly, they posted images of butterflies painted on their hands and saw their message reach two million people.
Ms Swinglehurst, who received an MBE in the New Year’s Honours for her work, said eating disorders were becoming more complicated. “You are usually treating people not only with an eating disorder but also with depression or OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder]’ or autistic spectrum disorder.
“We see less of the ‘textbook’ classic eating disorder – the middle class perfectionist girl. Now it’s all races, colours, creeds and family structures. There are a few myths that we bust.
“It’s a life-threatening illness. Recovery is two to five years. I have known patients for years and years and years. That is the kind of support they need. We become almost part of their extended families.”
The Royal Free service focuses on treating patients in the community to prevent admissions to hospital. This speeds their recovery and makes it easier for them to receive support from family and friends.
“We have got much more of a chance of being successful with someone at the beginning of their journey, rather than waiting for a low weight, where they are less amenable to therapy,” Ms Swinglehurst said. “Even boys are becoming much more comfortable coming for treatment than in the past.”
Patients are typically 13 to 14 when first referred to the service, though some have been as young as 10. “Maybe there is more pressure in school to do well,” she said. “A lot of young people do put pressure on themselves to keep up with their peers.”