Mental health services see spike in young people with eating disorders – Minister

Huge correlation between increased presentations and use of social media, Minister says

There has been a spike of young people, particularly those with eating disorders, presenting to mental health services during the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minister with responsibility for this area has disclosed.

Minister of State for Mental Health Mary Butler said that since the Covid-19 restrictions came into place in March 2020, “the number of young people entering the system is a lot more than those leaving the system.”

She also said there was an association with the increase in numbers and the pressures of conforming to perfect body types, which was driven by social media. Ms Butler said: “We have seen a spike in the number of young people who are seeking support, especially in relation to eating disorders. Last year, for example, 487 young people had to be admitted to in-patient units in relation to eating disorders.”

She said there was a huge correlation between the increased presentations and use of social media. She said there were evident challenges and pressures faced by young people from social media “in having the perfect body. There are also the challenges they face when somebody posts a throwaway comment that hurts them very much”.


She added: “The relation between eating disorders and social media is very evident.”


Ms Butler, a Fianna Fáil TD for Waterford, was speaking at the launch of a four-year organisation strategy for Jigsaw, which provides mental health support and services for young people between the ages of 12 and 15. The launch was also attended by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Ms Butler said the level of services was a “bit of a postcode lottery” but she had made efforts to improve the service in every part of the country. She said almost €4 million had been allotted to fund services for clinical eating disorders, with six new teams in place in 2021, with a further three, to four, teams in 2022.

She said that retention and recruitment of staff has been problematic and remains a challenge.

There were more than 10,000 children on the list for psychologists, with 5,000 waiting for more than a year, which, she said, was not acceptable.

Some €4 million had been provided as immediate funding to reduce the waiting list between September and December 2001 though whatever available means: be that public, private, using locums, or working out of hours. The Minister said she would receive the first report on progress in reducing the lists by the end of October.


She said in the budget, funds were made available to recruit more psychologists but cautioned the lengthy recruitment process can be problematic.

Ms Butler praised Jigsaw for being innovative. She pointed out that those aged 12 -25 can self-refer to Jigsaw without reference to a parent, teacher, guardian or doctor.

She also said that once the Covid-19 restrictions were introduced Jigsaw had within five days moved online to supply a blended service to young people seeking support for mental health issues.

Dr Joseph Duffy, chief executive of Jigsaw, referred to its response to the pandemic in his speech: “Our response to Covid-19 has shown we are capable of making widespread and significant changes in a short period of time. As a nation and as an organisation we must retain this sense of flexibility.”

Dr Duffy said if the aims of the strategy were achieved, it would go a long way towards fulfilling its vision of having an Ireland that valued every young person’s mental health.

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Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times