The social media diet

In a current trial, hundreds of people will receive therapy to counteract the impact of harmful social media as part of a new NHS service for treating the rare eating disorder diabulimia; the NHS hopes that a diet which restricts social media will improve mental health.

It’s part of a growing trend for young people to be encouraged to put away their computers, phones and tablets and engage with the real world. What should practices know about the trial and what might this mean for care in the future?

Diabulimia is a condition where people with type 1 diabetes restrict their insulin intake to lose weight; it can lead to serious complications including blindness and amputations. It is most common in young people aged between ages 15 and 30. Two in five women and one in ten men with type 1 diabetes are thought to have diabulimia. The condition is potentially deadly, with many young people at risk of making poor health choices due to pressure on social media.

In February NHS England today announced that it will pilot services joining up treatment for diabetes and mental ill health in London and on the south coast. Patients will be coached to deal with unrealistic body images amid increasing concerns about the potential damage social media can have on young peoples’ mental health.

Speaking at the launch Professor Jonathan Valabhji, national clinical director for diabetes and obesity at NHS England said, “As a diabetes clinician, I’ve seen first-hand the devastating impact that this condition can have on people and their families and so these services are an important step forward in the recognition of diabulimia.”

The new service comes as the NHS Long Term Plan has committed to deliver a step change in mental health treatment and a renewed focus on children and young people’s health.

Patient support

In addition to therapy, patients who are referred to the new service will be offered daily, structured meal planning and clinical support to manage their insulin intake. The new service will have eating disorder teams including:

  • team members specialising in mental healthcare and type 1 diabetes;
  • specialist day care centre support; tailored care ranging from hospital stays, where necessary, and help in the community to provide advice on diet;
  • insulin doses, as well as mental health support;
  • training for healthcare workers to increase their knowledge of the condition.
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The services, which mark a major step forward in the improved recognition of diabulimia, will begin later this year and, if successful, more services will be rolled out across the country.

The services, which mark a major step forward in the improved recognition of diabulimia, will begin later this year.

The initiative has been welcomed by Diabetes UK. “Diabulimia is often well-hidden by those living with it, and difficult to spot by healthcare professionals,” said Libby Dowling, senior clinical advisor, with Diabetes UK. “It’s so important that specialist – and joined-up – services like these are made available to those who need them. These pilots are so important, and we hope their success will inspire even more investment across England.”

Patients will be treated by a wide range of healthcare staff – including mental health therapists and specialist diabetes nurses – under one service to address physical and mental health needs together. Online learning will be provided for people with diabulimia, and their carers and families, so they can better understand the condition and support their loved ones. Ultimately, it is hoped that the pilot project will reduce emergency admissions to hospital for complications resulting from diabulimia.

The pilot project comes at a time when the NHS is concerned at the impact social media use is having on young people’s health. In a recent report of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee the government weighs up the advantages and disadvantages of social media use, raising concerns about the damage it can have on physical and mental health and wellbeing. While acknowledging there are benefits to online communities, the rising issues of social media related harm – such as diabullimia – suggest that excessive social media use remains controversial.

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