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Eating disorder specialists are dealing with a ‘tsunami’ of patients

Eating disorder specialists say they're dealing with a 'tsunami' of patient referrals and inquiries, with numbers skyrocketing since lockdown.

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Support services say they are seeing a big surge in demand for help. Source: 1 NEWS

Co-director of the New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic Kellie Lavender says their waitlist for treatment is three months long, and some patients are being hospitalised while they wait.

"It feels like a bit of a tsunami at the moment," Lavender said.

"We've had a couple of emails recently from people who've been on our list to let me know actually now they're in hospital - that's really hard because we want to get people before that happens."

The New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic received 23 patient referrals in January and February this year, but that figure shot up to 52 by July. The numbers are still nearly double pre-covid levels - last month Lavender says there were 41 referrals.

"Most of the families have reported that the lockdown has played a part in why they are now seeing us," she said.

Lavender says, anecdotally, things like isolation and the change of routine forced by the lockdown were factors in people's illnesses.

"Their mood has dropped, therefore the focus on what they're eating and how much activity they're doing changed significantly.

"We know what's dangerous in terms of developing disordered eating is the idea of restricted eating in some way, and there was actually a lot of focus during lockdown about food and eating and what not to do."

Hannah*, 15, began treatment for anorexia in 2019, but her lowest point was during the lockdown.

"I developed a lot of destructive behaviours over the March, April, May lockdown - it's in those dark moments when you're in your own head it can be very easy to not want to get out. When I was in depths of my eating disorder I didn't want to get better."

She said it took six weeks to get treatment when she became ill last year, and feels for other young people who may have to wait much longer.

"Eating disorder treatment is not easy to access," she said.

"With an ED you need treatment as soon as you recognise it's a problem - you need help that day, you can't afford to wait three months."

One paediatrician who spoke to 1 NEWS anonymously said they're concerned about the state of eating disorder care in New Zealand.

They said admissions at their hospital have increased in recent years and got worse during lockdown.

They also said specialist resources are stretched, with patients not getting the attention they need.

"It's frustrating for families, they don't have enough time with specialists - if it continues the way it is now, it's not going to be manageable."

In a statement, the Ministry of Health said although it doesn't routinely collect data on waitlists, "there has not been a significant difference in people accessing eating disorder services from March 2020, when compared to the same time period in 2019."

The Ministry also said it's aware there is "pressure" on all mental health services, including eating disorder services.

"The Ministry acknowledges that some eating disorder providers will have wait lists from time to time", it said.

But support services say they're seeing a different pattern.

Nicki Wilson from the Eating Disorder Association of New Zealand says the number of calls to their helpline have increased 400 per cent on the same period last year.

"We are finding that people aren't being diagnosed promptly, so they're becoming more unwell before they're referred to treatment."

She wants to see a review and more resources for treatment, including support for GPs when it comes to diagnosing eating disorders.

"There doesn't seem to be data that the Ministry [of Health], for instance, could look at to determine whether what's in place is adequate - because we would say that it's not."

*Name has been changed.

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