Wednesday, November 30, 2022

‘It is like a war’: For every Australian with an eating disorder, there is a family fighting the mental illness

Melbourne mum Sarah has been supporting her 18-year-old daughter to recover from anorexia nervosa for the past seven years, with help from Sarah’s dad Glenn.

Caring for Elise is a 24/7 job – Sarah is constantly monitoring her daughter, making sure she eats six meals a day, that she’s not secretly exercising in her room or sneaking out for a run at night.

There are times when Elise is so distressed, she needs to be physically restrained to protect her from self-harm.

“It is like a war,” Sarah said.

Elise’s eating disorder started when she was 12, amid the transition from primary school to high school.

During the pandemic, Elise’s eating disorder symptoms intensified.

Sarah thinks the sudden lack of routine and increased time online exacerbated her daughter’s condition.

Elise is not alone.

COVID prompts spike in eating disorders

A recent study in The Lancet found COVID-19 has increased the prevalence of eating disorders globally by as much as 15.3 per cent in 2020, compared to previous years.

From 2021 to 2022 Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) experienced a 300 per cent increase in demand for its services.

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EDV peer worker Gemma De Leo said more than a million Australians were affected by eating disorders each year, yet only a quarter of those people accessed treatment.

“The pandemic has had a huge impact on people with eating disorders whether it be new diagnosis, new presentations, people that are in recovery, their symptoms have worsened, or people that have recovered who have gone into a relapse because of the pandemic,” she said.

The rise in cases could have fatal consequences — eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder.

Mental health system needs ‘rebuild’

On Wednesday, the Victorian government announced a $20 million package to support Victorians with eating disorders, including 15 additional mental health beds and four multidisciplinary mental health teams in regional Victoria.

There is also funding to develop a new statewide eating disorders strategy, so Victoria has a more coordinated response to support people living with eating disorders, as well as their carers, families and supporters, in the future.

“We need to rebuild our mental health system from the ground up, but also deal with the long tail that will come out of this pandemic,” said Victorian Minister for Mental Health James Merlino.

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