The number of children under 16 hospitalised with anorexia almost doubled last year
*Content note - this article contains reference to eating disorders.
The pandemic lockdowns were a major trigger, experts agree.
According to Freedom of Information figures obtained by Newstalk, the number of children under the age of 16 who were hospitalised with anorexia almost doubled last year.
The figures showed that 237 children and teenagers had inpatient admissions in public hospitals in 2021 - compared to only 121 the previous year.
Speaking to Newstalk, Brendan Kelly, professor of psychiatry at Trinity College Dublin, says that eating disorders, especially anorexia, have the highest death rate of all mental illnesses.
Kelly also reveals that the spike in hospitalisations is probably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"So it's disappointing to see this, but it might reflect more young people seeking help for what has been an under-recognised condition".
The professor says anorexia can have very serious consequences.
"Anorexia involves a series of behaviours, centred on not eating to a normal degree - and sometimes that can be quite extreme. So the reasons for hospitalisation can be owing to the mental health side of anorexia, but also physical health."
He adds: "If the weight drops to a very significant level, there can cardiac complications and other problems in the physical body".
'A devastating illness'
Anorexia is becoming a more commonly diagnosed illness among young people, and according to Dr Martin Daly, former president of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), it is a devastating condition.
"Eating disorders are one of the biggest challenges to our medical system at this time," Daly has previously stated to Newstalk.
"It can cause serious physical and psychological harm to the sufferer."
He adds that this is concerning when you consider how common eating disorders are nowadays.
"At any given time, one out of every seven women is estimated to be struggling with an eating disorder. A number of studies have found that up to a third of adolescent girls - that means one out of every three - believe they're overweight."
Lockdowns had 'devastating effect'
In a statement, the HSE has previously said lockdowns during the pandemic had an absolutely devastating effect on teenagers and young adults.
“An increase in eating disorder presentations in the context of the COVID pandemic is being reported both in Ireland and internationally for all ages. “
It said research to date has shown the increase is due to a “combination of factors” including:
- Isolation and loneliness with restrictions
- Exposure to triggering messages, including possible lack of food supply to supermarkets
- Lack of structure and routine with school closures and homeworking
- Reduced contact with mental health services.”
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