• Australia's health system needs to do more for people with eating disorders. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Australia’s health system is lacking in nearly every area for people with eating disorders.
Sarah Norton

23 May 2016 - 12:50 PM  UPDATED 23 May 2016 - 12:50 PM

Corinna is one of the lucky few. The 19-year-old Melburnian, from an Indian background, was diagnosed with an eating disorder at 14.

“We have a history of eating disorders in the family,” she tells SBS. “I started having an issue with my body when I was nine.”

Corinna used to look at herself with a "real sense of disgust, thinking why am I different to everybody else. Because I have different coloured skin and I was actually born with two different coloured eyes. I felt like a circus act.”

She received her diagnosis after one of her therapists, who she was seeing for anxiety and depression, suggested she be tested.

Now she's in a minority of Australians being treated - “I’m still very much struggling, but it’s keeping me floating," she says - in a system that's failing 700,000 people with eating disorders.

The Butterfly Foundation is sounding a Mayday alert for the victims of systemic healthcare failure. Just 27 per cent of the estimated 1m Australians with an eating disorder are seeking help.

"We're lacking in nearly every area."

There are only 37 adult hospital beds in Australia for treatment, all located in the state capitals with no specialist services available in regional areas.

“We’re kind of lacking right across the spectrum and we’re lacking in nearly every area,” Butterfly Foundation CEO Christine Morgan tells SBS.

“One of the biggest barriers we have for being able to provide treatment services is a lack of professional expertise. So an urgent, urgent need is the development of workforce capacity."

Christine Morgan, Butterfly Foundation CEO.

There are multiple issues with providing effective care, including that eating disorders are not included in the curriculum of the wide range of health professionals needed to treat the disorder effectively.

Morgan says you need a number of properly trained health professionals to treat an eating disorder. You need psychiatrists, psychologists, general health pediatrics, GPs and most importantly dietitians.

“We don’t have the professional expertise, so we don’t have people who can provide that service,” she says.

Urgent need

The Butterfly Foundation says Australia needs an immediate increase in the number of specialist adult hospital beds and in-community day programs.

Each dollar invested in treating eating disorders has a $5 benefit to the community in reduced treatment costs and productivity losses - and most importantly, saved lives.

Morgan says, “The gaps are there, so who’s going to be the first one to try and step in and make it all work?”

After the Butterfly Foundation's guaranteed government funding finishes in June 2017, a digital gateway for mental health services is set to be established.

Morgan says it's "critical" that a specialised service for eating disorders is maintained.

“For eating disorders, you need people trained in eating disorders to be there taking the calls, answering the emails, having the web-based chats. It does not work if it’s just a general mental health person.”

She adds that help from loved ones is critical to somebody’s recovery journey.

Corinna says she has a lot to thank her mother for.

“She’s my carer and she basically has to deal with me at home so all the emotions and the breakdowns, the angry fights that we get into over food or other stuff,” she says.

“There are a lot of issues that we go through but she’s always there to try and help me and lift me up and encourage me.”

"Speak up rather than stay silent."

Morgan says early intervention makes a significant difference to recovery and often needs to be instigated by loved ones.

“If you feel like there’s something to be concerned about, there probably is something to be concerned about,” she says.

“We all know with our loved ones when something’s not quite right, so speak up rather than stay silent.”

Corinna would also like people to be better educated and less judgmental when it comes to eating disorders and mental illness.

“You can’t judge someone on how that person appears. With mental illness you can’t see it always. Sometimes you can and sometimes you really can’t,” she says.

“It’s hell to live with alone. It’s hell to live with with treatment so I don’t know how [people] are living with it alone.”

“There’s so many of us. I am so lucky to be in treatment but I know so many girls who can’t get the treatment that I’m getting.”


Read this too
Only a third of Australians with anorexia monitored by doctors: study
The world's largest anorexia nervosa genetics study shows only a third of Australians with the illness are being monitored by a medical professional.