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Demand surges for eating disorder helpline after lockdown creates ‘perfect storm’

A leading eating disorder charity has reported a surge in demand for its services, stoking fears the coronavirus pandemic has become a trigger for people developing eating disorders or relapsing.

Beat said the number of people contacting its helpline over the last six months has increased by 97% compared to the same period last year, with 28% of those using the service between May and July.

Many raised concerns about not being able to access safe foods or shops, reduced access to treatment and worries about lockdown lifting.

The charity’s director of external affairs, Tom Quinn, said “more and more” people are seeking help – suggesting the problem is getting worse.

“We are concerned there is now this significant increase in demand, people saying that they are worried about relapsing, and people who seem to be experiencing eating disorder symptoms for the first time,” he told Sky News.

“So we are worried about essentially an avalanche of people who will be going to the NHS for help.”

Beat estimates around 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder – which includes anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating.

Girls and young women aged 12-20 are most at risk, but studies suggest up to 25% of people with eating disorders could be male.

Dave Chawner, who had anorexia in his teens and is now in recovery, explained that the challenges of lockdown and feeling “out of control” during the pandemic are a “perfect storm” for people with eating disorders.

“I think for me, being in the flat, food and booze are the only things that give any form of respite so of course people turn to that and overindulge and that sets off a cycle,” the comedian and eating disorders campaigner said.

“If you eat too much, you feel rubbish, then you restrict, and if you restrict too much, then you get to a point where you break… it is a vicious cycle of over and under eating.”

Beat recently received a grant from the National Lottery and has boosted its services to help cope with demand, including providing more telephone advice, video groups for carers, and extending its helpline opening hours.

But the charity believes funding will be a challenge in the future if demand continues to rise, and has called for the government to intervene.

Hope Virgo, an eating disorder awareness campaigner, said charities are “often left to pick up the pieces when people are unable to access support”.

“The NHS is amazing and they do a great job but the issue is there’s not enough focus put on eating disorders,” she said.

“People still see them as physical illnesses – we’re looking so much at people’s weight and we’re waiting until they hit that crisis point.”

:: Beat is the UK’s eating disorder charity, providing information and support 365 days a year through helplines which people can call, text or email, and through online support including information, message boards and online support groups.

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