Australia

'The disease controlled me': Jana Pittman opens up about decade-long bulimia battle

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Olympian Jana Pittman has spoken publicly about her past battle with bulimia nervosa as she unveiled Australia's first research hub for eating disorders.

Champion hurdler Jana Pittman has opened up about her decade-long battle with an eating disorder, as she helped launch Australia's first institute dedicated to research into the deadly mental illness.

The 35-year-old said she developed bulimia nervosa in 2004 and struggled with the illness as her sporting career took off. 

"For many years that’s just how it started. It was something I thought I had control over until the day I realised it had control completely over me," she said.

Pittman recalled one evening, in the early stages of her disease, enjoying a meal before going home to throw it up.

"At the time, I was at the top of my game, competing globally and breaking world records," she said. 

"Now with the benefit of hindsight, I can see my eating disorder was wrapped up in the really positive experience of achieving my dreams, which probably escalated my problem."

Pittman said therapy helped her to overcome her illness. 

Jana Pittman competes in a 400m hurdles race.
Jana Pittman competes in a 400m hurdles race.
Getty Images Europe

She joined Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt at the University of Sydney on Monday to launch the InsideOut Institute.

A collaboration between Sydney Local Health District and the University of Sydney's Charles Perkins Centre, the institute aims to ensure every Australian living with an eating disorder has access to the best possible care by rethinking the way eating disorders are treated.

To coincide with the launch, institute director Dr Sarah Maguire called for the destigmatisation of eating disorders to help curb associated death rates.

An estimated one in 20 Australians has an eating disorder - a complex neuropsychiatric illness.

Suicide is said to be up to 31 times more likely for people with an eating disorder and many sufferers die because of medical complications.

Dr Maguire said more public education campaigns, treatments and services are urgently needed.

"Anorexia nervosa has one of the highest (if not the highest) mortality rates of the mental illnesses and imposes a carer burden higher than for depression or schizophrenia," she wrote in an opinion piece for the Medical Journal of Australia.

"Together, eating disorders have a total social and economic burden greater than that estimated for anxiety and depression combined."

Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Health Minister Greg Hunt.
SBS

Despite this, stigma and general public perception of the illness have rendered it "neglected" on the list of human health priorities, Dr Maguire says.

"Eating disorders bear all the hallmarks of a devalued or stigmatised subgroup, among an already stigmatised group of mental illnesses, leaving them doubly disadvantaged," she wrote.

But there's hope the new institute will bring about real change in treatments.

"To truly limit the impact of an eating disorder, early intervention for illness must become a national priority. More research is needed in this area, and the findings of research need structural supports to translate them into practice," Dr Maguire wrote.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.

MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78.

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25).

- Additional reporting by AAP.

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