Eating disorders skyrocketing – figures reveal 210 per cent increase in hospital admissions – help still hard to find

The number of Kiwis admitted to hospital with eating disorders has increased210 per cent and the time people are waiting for specialist help has “blown out” since 2014 with many left in limbo for more than eight weeks.

Figures also show that despite the rapid spike in demand for services, funding has barely increased.

The Herald has been highlighting eating disorders since March and has revealed that hundreds of people are suffering while waiting for treatment and others are simply not considered “sick” enough” to meet criteria for help in the public health system.

Patients and parents alike have spoken of the dire need for more funding and services across New Zealand – where many people are spending hundreds of dollars a week on private specialist treatment to save their or their loved one’s lives.

And recently even private care is increasingly hard to get with one patient told this week there was a four-week waiting list for counselling.

After hearing about the situation and speaking to people in the grips of eating disorders, National MP and mental health spokesman Matt Doocey sought information on the number of people suffering and what the Government was doing to help them.

The data he received, which he provided to the Herald, was shocking.

Between January 2014 and the end of 2020 the number of children under 15 admitted to hospital with a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder had risen 220 per cent.

The number of people aged 15-24 jumped 164 per cent and adults over 25 went up a whopping 260 per cent.


Children 0-14
2014 39 hospital admissions
2020 125

Adolescents 15-14
2014 91 hospital admissions
2020 241

Adults 25+
2014 25 hospital admissions
2020 90

And new patients waiting eight weeks or more to see a specialist in the public health system had increased to 57 per cent for adults and 32 per cent for children.

Despite the soaring numbers, since 2017/18 funding had only increased by $600,000.

“Data I have compiled shows an alarming trend of skyrocketing hospital admissions for eating disorders, yet funding for eating disorder services has remained static,” Doocey told the Herald.

“As the number of people who are able to access life-saving eating disorder treatment services has not kept up with demand, data alarmingly shows waiting times blowing out year on year.

“People of all ages throughout New Zealand are suffering due to a lack of treatment available for eating disorders.”

Doocey said the situation was “yet another example” of the Government “failing to respond to the increasing demand for mental health services across the board”.

But he was quick to point out that when in power, National also did not do enough to alleviate or respond to the issues.

“We’ve seen a lot of announcements from Labour about its investment in mental health, but money clearly isn’t getting to the coalface,” Doocey said.

“Kiwis are suffering from a very treatable illness but aren’t receiving the support they need from our mental health services.”

Doocey called on the government to take responsibility for the “poor state of services” and “take action towards reviewing the services available”.

He hoped National and Labour could work more together to alleviate the issue.

“It’s at the point where the evidence is irrefutable,” he said.

“This comes down to political will – we just need to get them to see this is a big issue.”

Health minister concedes mental health boost too slow

Health Minister Andrew Little last week conceded the ball had been dropped on mental health – which eating disorders fall under the umbrella of.

Labour Government announceda $1.9 billion mental health package in the 2019 Budget. – with $235 million set aside for building “mental health and addiction facilities”.

However Little said last week he week he was “extraordinarily” frustrated that despite making commitments and setting aside money, changes were not obvious.

“I am still trying to understand why. I am not expecting facilities to be completed or fully staffed but we seem to be a long way behind actually getting a shovel in the ground,” he said.

“We made the decisions, commitments, the money is there but the design and execution is out of our hands.”

Little said he had regular “catch-ups” on progress, but he would now look to instigate an independent stocktake to seek further assurances.

'Waitlists for waitlists' – no treatment for thousands

Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand chair Nicki Wilson said the Government needed to act urgently.

“In line with the increase in hospitalisations, it is significant that since the beginning of 2020 EDANZ have continued to experience more than twice the number of people contacting our support team than in 2019,” she said.

“The constant theme is inability to access treatment.”

Wilson said as demand grew there had been no increase in the eating disorders workforce.

“It’s not necessarily beds that are needed – it’s specialist outpatient treatment in the community,” she said.

“Hospitalisations are increasing because people aren’t accessing specialist treatment.”

Wilson said the waitlist data only showed “part of the picture”.

“It represents the wait to have an initial appointment,” she explained.

“People often then wait months to actually access treatment, if they are lucky enough to be offered treatment.

“Essentially this is a waitlist for a waitlist.

“This is a isn’t an illness that should lead to hospitalisation – at a cost of $1500 per night.”

"Anorexia is diabolical' – worried mother begs for help

One Kiwi family know all too well the often insurmountable battle to get help for eating disorders.

An Auckland mother has watched her daughter, now 18, struggle with anorexia for seven years.

She has given up work, seen her child at death’s door countless times and worries every day that the “terrifying” disease will kill her.

They spoke to the Herald about their painful journey – which is nowhere near its end.

“Anorexia is a diabolical, long-term, life-threatening illness that’s ultimate goal is to starve your child to death,” said the mother.

“In the best case scenario, you need a full team of specialists and your whole family involved in recovery.

“We have experienced the whole range of care, from hospitalisation and government services, to private services costing $180 an hour.”

The mother quit her job to support her daughter full time.

She applied to Work and Income New Zealand and was eligible for just $98.52 a fortnight.

“I needed to support my daughter for a full year in all her meals and that meant driving to school four times a day,” she said.

“We are now into year seven of anorexia and my daughter is just beginning her real recovery. It’s absolutely the worst possible thing she could have.”

The mother said along with the physical suffering, there was also a “tsunami of feelings and emotions” she had to navigate with her daughter – and the rest of the family.

“No one but other parents know the incredible toll this illness takes in the home. This is the worst,” she said.

The teen is a patient under the Auckland District Health Board’s specialist eating disorder service.

It’s not the first time she’s been treated by that team.

“My daughter was very ill and had been hospitalised a couple of times – it took that for them to accept her again,” she said.

“Earlier times she was not ‘sick’ enough. That was horrible… we knew our daughter was very very ill and it took finally being hospitalised for them to take her into their care.”

A terrifying but preventable situation

The mother said every single day of her daughter’s illness had been scary and exhausting.

“It’s terrifying to be told that your child could starve to death if they don’t eat – but they can’t eat. I could just weep,” she said.

The teenager is in outpatient care under the ADHB but after her counsellor resigned she has been put back on a waiting list for treatment.

The family were told in an email- shared with the Herald – that the waitlist for counsellors is “very long at the moment” and “most people are receiving group treatment now rather than individual”.

“That will likely be what we are able to offer her going forward. I don’t have a specific timeframe to give you unfortunately but it will be longer than two weeks,” said the clinical team leader.

The family are fortunate to be able to afford private counselling but even that is hard to come by.

“I have called four private practices for counselling this week – and it’s a four-month wait,” the exasperated mother said.

She – like many other parents – was beggingthe Government needed to do much more to provide care for eating disorder patients.

They should not fall on parents and families to save the lives of people in the grips of disordered eating.

The teenager said her illness, which she was desperate to recover from, was “really intense” at its worst points.

“It’s quite traumatising,” she said.

“I remember how hard my parents were working to look after me. I wasn’t myself. I could see they had no idea how to help me. I spent so many years fighting them.

“It was just horrible, I felt so bad.”

She explained that she wanted to get better but the illness convinced her most of the time that she shouldn’t.

“I am fighting myself all the time,” she said.

She said counselling had – literally – saved her life and she believed there needed to be much more help available in that space for a start.

Her mother pleaded for the Government to listen and take action.

She said the last almost-decade of her life had been horrendous and every time her daughter had to wait for professional help she just got sicker.

“It’s not their fault they are sick, it’s not their choice. It’s pretty hard,” she said.

“When the young person is in the deep grips of anorexia they do very scary things – they are truly not themselves.

“They can scratch and claw at themselves – we had to hold our daughter down on the floor to stop this – terrible stuff.

“They can kick in walls – we have a few holes – they can break things, they can hurl food across the room. They can do major self harm; we had the ambulance here twice last year from that.

“It’s terrifying. You are on edge for every movement, every noise. You do not sleep.”

She said she had to call the police several times when her daughter ran away because she feared the teen would take her own life.

“It’s awful stuff that both the young person and the parents go through. The idea that you would have to wait for care when they may be acting like this is terrible and wrong.”

Two petitions were this month presented to parliament calling for critical changes and more support and funding in the eating disorder space.

The petitions, by Christchurch mum Rebecca Toms and Eating Disorders Carer Support New Zealand, gathered tens of thousands of signatures across the country.

Do you need help?

If you need urgent help, reach out to your GP or local mental health provider.

• Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand 0800 2 EDANZ [email protected]

• New Zealand Eating Disorders Clinic

&BULL: Eating Disorder Carer Support NZ

Or if you need to talk to someone else:

• LIFELINE: 0800 543 354 or 09 5222 999 within Auckland (available 24/7)

• YOUTHLINE: 0800 376 633 ,free text 234 or email [email protected] or online chat.

• NEED TO TALK? Free call or text 1737 (available 24/7)

• KIDSLINE: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)

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