The Morrison Government on Tuesday has unveiled Australia’s first national strategy to improve early identification and treatment and help prevent eating disorders, as the country sees an alarming surge in the diseases as a result of the protracted lockdowns.
The new Australian Eating Disorder Research and Translation Strategy, developed through a $4 million federal grant by the InsideOut Institute, will guide critical research and is expected to transform how the country treats eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia and binge eating during the next decade.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the strategy will improve the wellbeing of those with an eating disorder and “most importantly, will save lives.”
“Tragically, eating disorders have one of the highest mortality rates of any psychiatric illness, with anorexia being the deadliest of all mental health conditions,” Hunt said.
“Strengthening eating disorder research and translation in Australia will ensure that we find and deliver the latest and best possible support for those impacted and their families and carers.”
Despite the harmful impact of severe eating disorders, the majority (70 per cent) of people with an eating disorder do not get treatment, and only about 20 per cent receive evidence-based treatment, said Dr Sarah Maguire, Director of the InsideOut Institute at the University of Sydney.
“Eating disorders are poorly understood by the general public and medical professionals,” she said.
“We know that early intervention can prevent severe illness; we know that many people can fully recover if they get the right therapy at the right time.”
“But unless we discover the right treatments through research and translate them into the right therapies received at the right time, people don’t and won’t recover,” Maguire added.
The 10-year national strategy outlines 10 priority areas in need of additional research, including early identification, equity of access, prevention, family support, treatment outcomes, early intervention, positive and negative treatment impacts, individualised medicine, risk and protective factors, stigma and health promotion.
Danni Rowlands, who is a manager at the Butterfly Foundation, Australia’s national charity providing support to patients with eating disorders, told 9news.com.au in August that prolonged periods of stress can trigger eating disorders.
“Eating disorders often develop as a way to cope with intense and negative experiences and emotions, and for some people, this time can trigger hard feelings and emotions,” Rowlands said.
A study from the European Eating Disorders Review in August showed that 65 per cent of individuals with eating disorders experienced a worsening of symptoms during COVID-19 lockdowns.
Further, the researchers also suggested that eating disorders could be triggered by the emotional distress felt during a pandemic as people dealt with the fear of contagion, excessive exposure to harmful eating patterns on social media, increased psychological suffering among individuals with obesity, and low access to treatment and care.
Canadian researchers also pointed out in June that children and teenagers are especially vulnerable to the increased isolation brought about by the lockdowns, with over half of Canadian adolescents with eating disorders reporting a return of symptoms of restricting and over-exercising and fear of weight gain in 2020.
Insideout estimated that approximately one million Australians are affected by eating disorders, which is four per cent of the population, with half a million currently living with binge eating disorder, 100,000 presently living with bulimia, and 25,000 living with anorexia.
Bulimia is characterised by episodes of binge eating followed by extreme methods to avoid weight gain.
In contrast, anorexia is characterised by low body weight and body image distortion with an obsessive fear of gaining weight.
The institute said most people who live with eating disorders don’t experience significant body changes, so their struggle can go unnoticed or even be dismissed by clinicians.
A contributor to the strategy, Shannon Calvert, who has experienced severe and enduring anorexia, said the best treatment for eating disorders is “person-centred and compassionate.”
“We have to integrate research and clinical practice so that our experience can educate scientists and health professionals and inform the questions that they pursue,” Calvert said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant increase in the Australian government’s expenditure on health which is now totalling more than $16 billion, representing 14 per cent of total government spending.