Govt labels eating disorder services 'priority area' ahead of Budget

Aaron Dahmen,
Publish Date
Mon, 16 May 2022, 5:00am
(Photo / File)
(Photo / File)

Govt labels eating disorder services 'priority area' ahead of Budget

Aaron Dahmen,
Publish Date
Mon, 16 May 2022, 5:00am

New Zealand's eating disorder services are at "crisis" level as demand and service wait times swell, amid fears of vast unmet need.    

Documents, obtained by Newstalk ZB under the Official Information Act, warn patients are suffering, with their health deteriorating while they wait for treatment.    

At the end of July last year, Associate Health Minister Ayesha Verrall received a briefing from health officials.  

It outlined concerns over a rise in young people requiring eating disorder support, especially those from Māori and Pacific communities.

"There has been a significant increase in the number of presentations to general hospitals for medical implications of eating disorder services, and DHB services report that this has accelerated in the Covid-19 environment."    

Anorexia and bulimia are two of the most critical conditions, with eating disorders recording some of the highest mortality rates of all mental illnesses.    

"Some patients [are] getting more unwell while waiting and entering services in crisis via general medical services," the briefing said.    

The documents also show that between April 2019 and March 2020, 57 per cent of 20–64 year olds couldn't access services for more than two months.    

A full set of data for 2021 is not yet available, but quarterly figures show similar trends.    

Despite this, the last significant investment into eating disorder services was $26 million dollars over four years in 2009.    

Speaking to ZB ahead of this week's Budget, Verrall said there's a "strong case for improvement".    

She gave little away over whether there would new funding to boost services, but hinted it was squarely on the Government agenda.    

"I certainly see this as a priority area where services need to be strengthened."    

She said this issue can't be fixed with one Budget alone.    

"There have been small cost pressure increases, but I accept there's an unmet need in our specialist services area.    

"What we need to do is make sure that those specialist services are built up... that will take a lot of time."    

Specialist eating disorder services include inpatient or residential beds, day programmes, individual psychological therapies, and family-based support.    

They also provide training for health providers who support sufferers.    

In October, the Ministry of Health set up an Eating Disorders Advisory Group, which meets monthly, and features specialist representatives and those with "lived experience".  

It comes as National, the Greens and the Eating Disorder Association of New Zealand (EDANZ) plead for funding and a strategy to tackle the "preventable" issue.    

National's mental health spokesperson Matt Doocey said there's been huge pressure in the system – and those suffering are being let down.    

"It's just heart-breaking... we'll have young people dying on waiting lists."  

"Some parents are being turned away and told their kids are not close enough to death to access services."    

He wants the Government to put more money towards eating disorder support in Thursday's Budget.

"That we need is a clear strategy from the Government... and then understand what investment is required to implement that", he said.    

The Green Party's mental health spokesperson Chlöe Swarbrick said she's deeply worried.    

"The system's failing at a number of levels."    

"It's really important not to just see this as a one-size fits all solution, or something that you'll find some kind of resolution [for] by simply resourcing more beds."    

Swarbrick's confident the Government's listened to those on the ground over recent months.    

"My work with Minister Verrall has demonstrated that she takes this very seriously."    

That's echoed by EDANZ spokesperson Nicki Wilson, who's calling for a review of the current treatment model.    

She said the situation is completely unacceptable and unnecessary.    

'"The suffering is extreme of individuals and their whānau."    

"We have a crisis situation that needs addressing now."  

"Eating disorders are treatable... full, lasting recovery is possible at any age", she said.