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pandemic impact

People with eating disorders presenting more unwell since pandemic

Rises in acute presentations and significant increases in referrals to specialist teams also reported.

PEOPLE WITH ALL types of eating disorders are presenting “more unwell than previously seen” to HSE mental health and other services.

This statement was part of a response to a parliamentary question (PQ) on the projected impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on eating disorder prevalence. TD and co-leader of the Social Democrats, Róisín Shortall, put this to the Minister for Health in the Dáil two weeks ago.

The HSE response on Thursday, referred to anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. 

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project on the impact that lack of services, particularly in regions without specialist teams, is having on people with eating disorders.

Shortall told Noteworthy that “it is seriously concerning that people with eating disorders are presenting more unwell in the last year, and it reflects the devastating impact of the pandemic on our nation’s mental and physical wellbeing”. 

“People will be suffering the negative side effects of this pandemic for many years to come, and it will be felt especially acutely among our younger people whose worlds have been turned upside down.”

‘Significant increases’

General manager for mental health services in the HSE, Dr Sinead Reynolds, wrote the PQ response.

Reynolds reported a rise in acute presentations and “significant increases” in referrals to the three specialist eating disorder teams in 2020 compared to 2019. These increases are expected to continue into this year – 2021.

Paediatric hospital and acute hospitals are reporting similar rises in acute presentations of eating disorders. 

 There has also been an increase in eating disorder hospital admissions in Ireland. An article published in last month’s Irish Medical Journal noted there had been a 66% increase of these admissions during the pandemic.

Reynolds from HSE echoed this in her PQ response letter when she stated that “an increase in eating disorder presentations in the context of the Covid pandemic is being reported both in Ireland and internationally for all ages”.

This was put down to a “combination of factors” including isolation and loneliness with restrictions, food insecurity, exposure to triggering messages including possible lack of food supply to supermarkets and reduced contact with mental health services. 

Funding spent elsewhere 

In reaction to the PQ response, Shortall told Noteworthy that funding needs to be a priority.

It is urgent and should be a matter of national priority to ensure adequate funding and support is available, not just this year and next, but committed in the long-term for eating disorders, mental health and related services.

Noteworthy previously revealed that the entire amount of last year’s development funding for eating disorder services was used to cover other areas of mental health provision.   

A key element of the national programme is to treat people with eating disorders early before they become sick enough for admission to hospital. To do this, hubs and mini-hubs of specialist teams were to be set up across the country within five years. Three years into the programme, only three of the 16 promised hubs are operational.

In relation to this, in the same parliamentary question, Shortall asked the Minister for Health the reason the full spending allocated to eating disorders was not used in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

The HSE response acknowledged that nationally planned developments of eating disorder services had to be temporarily paused last year as the allocated funding was “required to meet unfunded cost growth in mental health services”. It stated:

Since 2016, €5.7 million has been made available for eating disorder posts through programme for government funding. Of that €1.77 million has been invested to date in eating disorder specialist posts.

That leaves a balance of €3.94 million, which the HSE said is “now available to be invested in specialist eating disorder services”. 

It also gave a breakdown of the funding provided and spent for eating disorder posts over the past number of years: 

Click here to view this table in a different window. 

This table shows the funding allocated through the programme for government (PFG) each year as well as what year the posts were filled.

€81,151 worth of eating disorder posts were filled last year from 2016 PFG funding. No posts have been progressed in relation to 2019 or 2020 funds to date.

In relation to future spending, the HSE stated in the PQ response that it is their intention “to progress the recruitment of these eating disorder specialist posts in 2021 and there are no plans to divert this available funding to other areas of service provision”. 

If you need to speak to someone, contact:


Do you want to know if people with eating disorders are being failed by the public health system?

The Noteworthy team want to do an in-depth investigation into the progress of the national clinical programme for eating disorders and what is causing delays in its implementation.

Here’s how to help support this proposed project>

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