Fifty people have been admitted to Altnagelvin Hospital with potentially life-threatening eating disorders in the past five years, it has emerged.
Figures attained by the Derry News via an FOI request show that some of those were admitted more than once - with 66 admissions in total from 2014-2018.
It should be noted however that the lowest number of admissions over the five years was recorded in 2018.
It is common that those admitted to hospital suffer from anorexia which is an emotional disorder characterised by an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat.
Whereas the eating disorder, bulimia, involves binge eating followed by purging which doesn’t normally lead to the same dangerous physical complications brought on by anorexia.
Ann McCann founded the charity Eating Disorders NI which offers support to people battling the illnesses.
She believes that early intervention is key in order to limit any long-lasting impact on the individual’s mental and physical health and to improve their chances of recovery.
Explaining the seriousness of the situation when sufferers are hospitalised, Mrs McCann said: “People admitted to hospital are deemed to be very physically ill. It is due to a loss of body weight, for what is termed as re-feeding, because their potassium levels would be dangerously low.
“They tend to stay only a couple of weeks because they wouldn’t be getting psychological help at Altnagelvin - the hospital would deal with the physical side of the illness.
“It would mainly be about getting their body nourished and getting them out of danger.”
People with eating disorders who have shown little sign of recovery are dealt with at a regional level and can be referred for treatment to somewhere such as St. George’s Mental Health unit in London.
“If it gets to the stage where they are physically, or mentally suicidal, they would be very ill and can be sent to England for treatment because we have no inpatient beds for adults in Northern Ireland,” Mrs McCann added.
There is a facility for under 18s in Belfast but nothing similar in Derry.
With eating disorders, more so than any other mental health condition, it is difficult to quantify the number of people affected in Derry, or NI as a whole, due to the stigma attached to the illness, Mrs McCann added.
However, research conducted by the department of health estimates there are between 18,000 – 20,000 individuals living with an eating disorder in Northern Ireland at any one time. And the effects can be “devastating” for sufferers, and their families and friends.
When the devolved institutions are up and running again in NI, the prospect of building a centre which specialises in the treatment of patients with eating disorders, will be explored.
It would require a substantial sum of money to build, and a high level of expertise to run the service, with some health experts saying it simply isn’t feasible in NI.
Mrs McCann is pragmatic about the possibility: “We just don’t have adequate statistics to tell us how bad this illness is and if you don’t have those numbers you don’t get the resources.
“What we need in NI is not to be dealing with the critically ill but more help for people before they get to that stage.
“And the Western Trust in many ways has quite a lot of difficulties because it is so widespread and there is such a small team to deal with it. They could have four times as many staff and still not have enough to deal with the demand.
“You have to treat it early on before it distorts their brain in such a way that it’s a long-term illness they have to manage.”
Anyone affected by the issues raised in this story can contact Eating Disorder NI's 24 hour support line on 028 9023 5959 or visit their website to contact them by email www.eatingdisordersni.co.uk/Contact and find out more information.
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