Zali Steggall speaks on the need for more support for people with eating disorders

9 March 2023

According to the Butterfly Foundation, one million Australians are currently impacted by or living with disordered eating. I have had constituents reach out to me with their concerns about the prevalence of eating disorders and seeking help for treatment of their children. Globally, one in five children and adolescents have signs of disordered eating. There is a shockingly high volume of Australians who are impacted by these complex and dynamic disorders. Less than a quarter of those people are receiving the help, support and intervention they need. More needs to be done to extend the existing targeted mental health support and treatment to those who need it. My team and I have engaged with experts in the youth mental health space, and I wish to thank Professor Pat McGorry, Professor Maree Teesson and organisations such as ReachOut Australia and the Society for Mental Health Research for their work in this space and for sharing their insights with us.

Disordered eating can be incredibly varied, and the symptoms may not always be apparent. While anorexia is the most talked about disorder, binge eating and bulimia are actually the most prevalent. We need to break down the stigma around these ailments and enhance public awareness of them. Symptoms can be incredibly subtle. We need to know the warning signs, including meticulous calorie or kilojoule counting; ritualistic eating times or routines; excessive exercise; fear of eating in front of people; or fixating on safe foods only, including strange combinations of foods.

Every member in this parliament represents people in their electorates who are living with eating disorders. It's our responsibility to address the rise in cases urgently and, just as importantly, the amount of treatments that are available. Genetic vulnerability, psychological factors and sociocultural influences have all been identified as leading causes of disordered eating. Some areas of our community are at higher risk than others—for example, in sport. Athletes have a higher prevalence of disordered eating, and up to 45 per cent of female and up to 19 per cent of male athletes experience disordered eating. The National Eating Disorders Collaboration has been working with the Australian Institute of Sport to tackle this issue, which was exacerbated when training programs shut down during COVID.

But we saw COVID impact our youth in general as well, because those lockdown periods meant that young people turned to what they thought they could control in circumstances where so much was beyond their control. Unfortunately, we've seen a dramatic increase in numbers. Since the beginning of the pandemic, some hospitals have recorded an increase of between 80 to 104 per cent in children with anorexia. It's also well known how impactful social media can be on young people. Young people are bombarded by perfect people, with perfect bodies and perfect lifestyles. The constant exposure to significantly filtered and edited images does indeed warp our perception of what is authentic and what is augmented.

There are treatments that can help, although some eating disorder journeys can take a long time towards recovery. We know that these impact not just on those who are impacted directly but also on their families—the wider circle. It often means parents take time out of the workforce. It means disrupted studies and disrupted ability to work and support the rest of the broader family. We know there's a severe shortage in the mental health workforce, and the workforce treating eating disorders is factored into this. General practitioners are generally the first point of contact for treatment but, again, there's a shortage here, which is widely acknowledged. Currently, Australia only has one dedicated residential treatment centre for eating disorders in the entire country.

ReachOut's research suggests that friends, family and the internet are where young people are turning to when seeking mental health support. A simple Google search can often be the first step to connecting with a service that can make a profound difference to someone's mental and emotional wellbeing, so more attention should be given to digital connection and interaction with mental health services. These innovations, whether it be telehealth or ReachOut's peer chat program, see really promising results in access to services. Some people prefer the discretion, anonymity and comfort of accessing support in their own time from their own home. I welcome the commitment of $20 million by the previous government to creative treatments for eating disorders and encourage further focus by this government on increasing access to services