Diabulimia: Diabetics with eating disorder offered NHS therapy to cope with damaging social media posts

The NHS will target body image concerns stoked on social media as part of bespoke therapy to help hundreds of patients with a diabetes-related eating disorder.

Diabulimia is a condition where people with type 1 diabetes restrict their insulin to lose weight.

Though the condition is rare, growing awareness and its potentially serious complications have led the NHS to launch pilots in London and the south coast that join up diabetes and mental health services.

The services will include coaching to help sufferers cope with troubling or unrealistic body images online, day centres providing structured meal and insulin support, and information for families.

“Diabulimia is a serious eating disorder which, without the right clinical and mental health support, can have devastating consequences such as stroke, kidney failure and blindness,” said Libby Dowling, senior clinical adviser of Diabetes UK. “It can also be fatal.”

As many as two-fifths of women – and one in 10 men – with type 1 diabetes are thought to have been affected by the condition. It is most common in those aged 15 to 30.

However, Diabetes UK warns it is “often well hidden”. Those suffering the condition already have to think carefully about their food intake to minimise the harmful effects of excessively high blood sugar.

“Because diabetes forces you to focus on what you eat, it is not unusual for that to get tangled up with feelings about food, weight and body image,” said Dr Dasha Nicholls, chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ eating disorders faculty.

“But in the case of diabetes that can become dangerous very quickly because of the impact on blood sugar levels.”

She said it was “extremely welcome” that a new service was being considered for this complex group. The scheme is set to be rolled out more widely if the pilots starting later this year are successful.

Claire Murdoch, national director for mental health at NHS England, said: “Body image pressure is helping to drive ever-increasing numbers of young people to the health service for treatment and support. And while diabulimia is rare it can be just as deadly as other more common eating disorders.” 

“These pilots are another important step forward but the fact is the NHS can’t do it all – wider society needs take a long hard look at what more we can do together to protect young people’s wellbeing.”

The government has vowed to crack down on harmful content on social media sites following the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017.

Her father has said Instagram helped to kill his daughter after he found she had been viewing graphic images of self-harm on the site. Instagram has since committed to remove graphic images.

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