Fed up with the treatment of eating disorders
Besides the general lack of funding and sweeping-under-the-carpet of mental illness, it’s clear there is still huge amounts of stigma against people with eating disorders. Photo: Getty
Imagine you are dying of cancer, each day getting sicker and sicker. You show up at a hospital for help, and, after a brief examination, they say ‘sorry, you are really sick. But your cancer is stage three and we only treat people who are in stage four, please come back when you are closer to death.’
There would be outrage.
Yet this is what happens to young adults with eating disorders in our country every day.
And worse than that, made sick by their disordered eating they have only one way to get physically sick enough for treatment - more disordered eating.
Yes, we are essentially telling young women with eating disorders to eat less, binge more, if they want to get the treatment they need.
This week I wrote about a young woman, Ella Graham, who is running a campaign to improve eating disorder treatment* after being told that she must wait until next year to get the hospital care everyone agrees she needs.
The reason? There are only two adult public hospital eating disorder beds for the whole of NSW, both at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. There are a few more at Westmead Hospital, but, unlike treatment for other conditions, they are fenced-off for people who live in the Westmead area.
Again, imagine if that happened with cancer. You desperately needed treatment and were told you could only get it if you lived in the right suburb.
This shortage of beds exists across the country.
There are some private hospital treatment programs, which cost thousands of dollars each week and won't take you on if you are too physically sick (catch 22, anyone?). Experts I spoke to said sometimes they only exacerbate the problem because health insurance doesn’t always cover the full stay (or families can’t afford the full stay), meaning patients end up cycling in and out of care.
Perhaps you think I’m exaggerating, comparing an eating disorder with cancer?
But eating disorders are insidious and terrifying. They slowly suck the life out of their victims; consuming them with anxiety and obsession, sapping them of their identity outside of the disorder and their ability to participate in everyday life.
So what’s going on? Well, besides the general lack of funding and sweeping-under-the-carpet of mental illness, it’s clear there is still huge amounts of stigma against people with eating disorders.
Time and time again Ella’s website, Fed Up NSW Health, tells the stories of eating disorders being treated as an annoyance, as a self-indulgence.
Many people can’t shake the feeling they are self-inflicted and so not real. But that ignores the fact that while yes, someone with an eating disorder is physically controlling what they eat, they are not in control of the feelings and experiences governing that process. The eating disorder is a manifestation of extremely real pain that is not self-inflicted.
In fact, research just published yesterday found “thin idealisation”, that horrible precursor to the development of disordered eating, is actually strongly linked to your genes.
The Michigan researchers using a twin database found up to 40 per cent of thin idealisation could come down to genetic influences, which they said was “remarkably similar” to the heritability of disordered eating and eating disorders.
So even susceptibility to body image problems looks like it might have a genetic component.
Yes, teenagers can be histrionic and self-centred and some will use food and eating to draw attention to themselves. But that is nothing on the extremely real, harrowing diseases that eating disorders are, and the extremely real pain lived by people who have them.
And these people, these young people with otherwise bright futures who are going through the most difficult experience they might ever face, what do we do for them? We turn our backs.
As Ella Graham says on her website, this is not okay.
The Butterfly Foundation eating disorder and body image support service: 1800 334 673 or firstname.lastname@example.org
*Please note: website may be triggering for some people.