Cambridge Children's logo

Mobile menu open

Cambridge Children’s Hospital will "improve treatment and outcomes" for children and young people with eating disorders

There has been a significant increase in the numbers of children and young people being diagnosed with eating disorders, according to a recent Government report. Cambridge Children's Hospital will treat mental health and physical health together, an approach that experts believe will make a real difference to those with this devastating condition.

This article has references to eating disorders and self harm

Today saw the publication of The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2023 (opens in a new tab) report, a follow on from the 2017 survey which six years ago reported an upswing in anxiety, depression and self-harm among young women. This latest report, published by NHS England, reveals one in five children and young people have a probable mental health condition. It also shows a significant rise in those being diagnosed with eating disorders, including a 10% increase in young men and women aged 17-19.

Professor Tamsin Ford, one of the research leads for the new Cambridge Children’s Hospital, and Head of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, was involved in the research and stresses how important this data is.

“These figures confirm that the huge increase in referrals to clinics for eating disorder services is not just the result of more children and young people seeking help, it’s a sign of more children and young people needing help. There is no single silver bullet to fixing this problem. All services working with children must pull together.”

While not every young person with an eating disorder will require inpatient care, for those that do Professor Ford says Cambridge Children’s Hospital, with its vision of integrated mental and physical healthcare, will vastly improve treatment and outcomes.

woman with long brown hair and glasses, smiling

“If your condition is that severe, you need access to blood tests and the acute medical care that being on an inpatient acute paediatric ward gives you, but at the same time you need the therapeutic environment and support that you would get in a mental health ward,” says Professor Ford.

What Cambridge Children's Hospital will do is provide both mental and physical healthcare in the same place as opposed to children having to be transferred between locations and only being able to access one part of the care they need at any one time.

Professor Tamsin Ford, University of Cambridge

Summer*, who was diagnosed with an eating disorder during her teens, was cared for in the community before being admitted to an inpatient ward. She says being able to have a clinician treat you from your bedside, rather than being transferred to another hospital or location, could make a huge difference.

“Self-harming can be quite common in some mental health units," said Summer, who grew up in Essex. "The need to leave for treatment somewhere else can be traumatising for the young person being moved and the other patients who might witness it.”

The physical consequences [of eating disorders] can be huge. Your vital signs can get dangerously low and long term you can get difficulties, like osteoporosis.

Summer, former patient

Professor Ford said eating disorders often go under the radar, due to the stigma attached to the condition. Young people try to conceal their problems, due to denial, shame or embarrassment.

Summer, who says challenges at home as well as pressure from social media contributed to her becoming ill, added: “It can be a shock being admitted as an inpatient, particularly if you feel you're still functioning well in school or work. It can be difficult to recognise how sick you are.”

As the first specialist children’s hospital for the East of England, Cambridge Children’s Hospital will care for children, young people and their families from Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, Norfolk and Suffolk. Every child will be treated for their mental and physical health, with an additional focus on family wellbeing and support.

Professor Ford said mental health problems in the teenage and emerging adult years can massively impact a young person’s future trajectory in terms of education, health, employment, and social skills. She believes Cambridge Children’s Hospital vision of integrated care will help children and young people recover more quickly.

What we hope is that treating mental and physical health together – a ‘whole child’ approach - will allow us to get children better quicker and get them back to their homes and back attending school, which again will help their ongoing recovery. Children should be in hospital for the shortest possible time.

  • The survey was funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and Department of Education, commissioned by NHS England, and carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, the Office for National Statistics and the Universities of Cambridge and Exeter.
  • It follows on from major surveys carried out in 1999, 2004 and 2017. The same children and young people who were involved in the 2017 survey, aged 2-19, have also taken part in the latest one, now aged 8-25.
  • * Summer’s name has been changed to protect her identity.