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The NHS and leading eating disorder charity Beat have drawn up new guidance to help people of all ages suffering with an illness and their families cope over the festive season.
The Christmas period can be an extremely difficult time of year, with increased emphasis on food and drink during the party season placing an additional strain on people with conditions such as anorexia or bulimia.
The NHS and Beat have teamed up to produce practical steps to help worried friends and families and those of any age with an illness navigate the period and make it as stress free as possible – while continuing to manage a condition.
NHS eating disorder services are being ramped-up nationwide, with additional funding of £30 million each year supporting 70 teams delivering care to thousands more young people as part of the NHS Long Term Plan.
Dr Prathiba Chitsabesan, NHS associate clinical director for children and young people’s mental health said: “Living with an eating disorder is a constant struggle but Christmas can be particularly challenging with an increased focus on food, drink and big get togethers, while the added pressure of New Year resolutions and the bombardment of weight loss messaging is just around the corner.
“Helping families manage these conditions at home can be crucial and hopefully these tips will really make a difference.”
The joint advice is based on first-hand experience from clinicians, patients and parents. It outlines tips that can ease the pressure for those with an eating disorder. Some of the suggested techniques include:
- serve food as a buffet rather than as sit-down meals
- minimise the social expectations of people with eating disorders over the festive season
- treat meals on and around Christmas Day as routinely as possible
- plan well ahead and think about how food features in your days
- once dinner is over, shift the focus on to other activities like playing games or watching a family film
- make loved ones aware to avoid questions about weight or appetite
Eating disorders can sometimes go undetected for a long time, even by those closest to the person who is unwell. As Christmas can also be a time where families come together, often for the first time in several months, it may be the first time symptoms are noticed. Beat has published advice on how to spot the signs of an eating disorder on their website.
From the 24 December to the 1 of January, Beat’s Helplines will be open every day from 4.00pm – 8.00pm. Anyone in need of support can get in contact via phone, email, anonymous one-to-one webchat or social media messaging.
The Beat Helpline can be reached on 0808 801 0677, or there is a dedicated Youthline for under-18s on 0808 801 0711.The online support groups and one-to-one webchat can be accessed on beateatingdisorders.org.uk.
Beat’s Director of Services, Caroline Price said: “The Christmas period can be extremely difficult for people with all kinds of eating disorder. The pressure to eat large amounts can be triggering for people with binge eating disorder and bulimia, as well as causing anxiety for people with anorexia.
“People with eating disorders often try to hide their illness and at Christmas when eating is a social occasion – often with people who they do not see frequently – they may feel ashamed and want to isolate themselves from others.
“At the same time, Christmas can be a source of distress for families who are caring for someone with an eating disorder.
“All these pressures can be made more difficult as the normal support networks are often not available at Christmas, as friends may be away and regular social activities close for the holidays. Anyone worried about their own or someone else’s health can contact Beat’s Helplines 365 days a year.”
Katie, who is in recovery from an eating disorder, said: “I found Christmas incredibly hard when I was unwell and blamed myself for not being ‘normal’. Although things are much better nowadays it’s still a challenge due to the negative memories associated with my illness and the holidays, and the overwhelming amount of food and socialising that occurs.
“Eating disorders don’t break for Christmas, and it’s important that people appreciate those close to them may struggle with the festivities and may need to take it more slowly and be supported.”
The NHS is seeing record numbers of children and young people for eating disorders and waiting times for starting treatment are improving thanks to 70 new community eating disorder teams who can provide specialist support.
Since 2016, with the support of additional investment to improve access and treatment outcomes, there has been an increase in young people accessing dedicated eating disorder services from around 5,000 in 2016/17 to over 7,500 in 2018/19.
At least four out of five children are now starting treatment within one week if urgent and four weeks if non-urgent.
The NHS is continuing to increase investment to meet rising demand as part of its Long Term Plan to enhance the service offer and ensure the standard is met and maintained for children and young people. It also sets out a clear plan with new funding to improve care for adults and older adults with eating disorders.”