Thousands of Kiwis are affected by eating disorders and the health system lacks the capacity to help them. Experts warn the sector is in crisis, as Sophie Harris reports in the second of a three-part series.
Eating disorders are one of the deadliest mental illnesses, but experts say funding and support have never kept up with the demand. Across New Zealand, there are less than 30 dedicated public beds for patients with eating disorders.
Who left many like Zoe Jensen in limbo: “sick” but “not sick enough” for treatment.
Jensen, 21, was diagnosed with anorexia in ninth grade. But, at the time, I was not ready to accept help: “I didn’t think I had a problem, I wanted to lose more weight before getting help, I was not happy from where I was.”
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Before the pandemic, Wellington’s wife had begun to recover. But the lockdown has been detrimental. Being ‘trapped’ inside with her eating disorder became a nightmare: “Every meal was tears, arguments, running outside, trying to hide food.
“I like control and I like certainty and I felt really out of control, the isolation took a lot out of me,” she said. She started purging and exercising too much.
“I know it’s not fun, it’s not fun to have the ‘I don’t want you to die in front of me’ conversation, but, you just can’t think straight, in that kind of state.”
The Eating Disorders Service of the Center Region (CREDS) was able to find him a hospital bed. But, she said they fired her without warning before the end of her 14-day assessment period.
She said she asked to be a day patient, but was turned away without any follow-up.
They told her she was “too docile” to be there, and that the environment would be too “trigger” for her, she said.
The executive director of the mental health, addictions and developmental disabilities service, Karla Bergquist, said it did not match their records.
Bergquist said there are many reasons a customer may be asked to leave before the 14-day assessment is complete.
Jensen said she no longer thought the public system was an option for her and was self-funding private treatment.
“I don’t get as much help as I would like just because of the high cost of things and the length of time waiting in the public system.”
Kate Van Elswijk, 25, has struggled with her eating disorder since she was a child.
Nicki Wilson, from the Eating Disorders Association New Zealand, said there was no doubt Aotearoa needed more services.
“Services already stretched and strained are at breaking point and as a result people are waiting so long for help.
“We are seeing this incredible suffering, and people are sicker for longer than is acceptable.”
Wilson said there were ‘so many’ people in need who couldn’t get help for eating disorders because the DHB criteria deemed them ‘not sick enough’ or ‘too sick’ and resistant to treatment.
She said the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding eating disorders was a major barrier to treatment and recovery.
“The stereotypical slim white teenage woman is truly inaccurate and hugely damaging.”
In March, there were 241 people on public waiting lists across the country.
A Department of Health spokesperson said the department was aware of the increase in cases of eating disorders since the start of the pandemic.
The demand for services means people may have to wait for help, the spokesperson said.
The spokesperson said work to improve the early identification and treatment of eating disorders was a “priority”.
Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall said $3.9 million in this year’s budget would go towards specialist services and ensuring people have accessible outpatient services.
“It’s a substantial investment that will make a difference. It will allow, at full scale, to treat 200 additional people per year.
Verrall said efforts are also underway to upskill health care providers and school guidance counselors to improve early identification and treatment.
The Department of Health also established an Eating Disorders Advisory Group in October last year.