Funding to combat eating disorders stalls despite alarming increase

Warning: This article discusses mental illness and eating disorders.

Eating disorders are one of the biggest killers of young women.

But while the numbers suffering from this mental illness are growing at alarming rates, funding to help them has stalled.

Newshub has spoken to former patients and experts in the field who are calling for more funding and better treatment. Here's what they had to say.

Genevieve Mora was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa when she was 14. She spent her teenage years in and out of hospital and her illness almost killed her.

She spent three years getting private treatment with the help of her parents, at a cost of $500 a week. It cost her tens of thousands of dollars to recover - a luxury not available to the majority of sufferers.

Genevieve says eating disorders are an area of mental health that slip through the cracks.

"I was fighting an illness that made me feel really isolated, it made me feel alone," she says.

"I was embarrassed, I became really angry... many moments I felt completely hopeless."

New Zealand has seen a sharp rise in eating disorder cases in the last eight years.

Since 2011, the number of patients being treated has almost doubled from 894 to 1600.

And in spite of the Government's $1.9 billion mental health budget, Newshub can reveal none of it has been set aside by the Ministry of Health to specifically target eating disorders.

There are just three government-funded clinics for eating disorders across the country: in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.

Any patients living outside those centres have the added cost of travelling, possibly hundreds of kilometres, to get specialised psychological care.

Experts such as Roger Mysliwiec want eating disorders taken more seriously.

Mysliwiec was the leading clinician for Auckland's eating disorders service for 15 years, before going into private practice.

"Anorexia is basically the mental illness with the highest mortality rate... they [patients] can't get into services and are finding it too difficult to even access the services, or the waiting lists are too long," he says.

Significant international studies say without early treatment, eating disorders result in high death rates, particularly for young women.

Genevieve says the lack of help, along with the statistics, is discouraging for sufferers.

Genevieve Mora speaks about her experience.
Genevieve Mora speaks about her experience. Photo credit: Newshub

"There are so many individuals who are struggling with eating disorders and are either too ashamed to reach out because there's a really bad stigma or do reach out but aren't given access to help because it's not available or they don't fit in the criteria."

The lack of funding also means a long waiting period to access the available treatment, with an average waiting time to even be seen in a clinic of two months.

If you're older than 18 it takes even longer. There's a nearly five-month waiting list for the Christchurch clinic.

When Newshub put these findings to the Ministry of Health they refused an interview but in a statement said: "The Government has committed $455 million over four years to expand primary mental health and addiction services so that anyone - including those with eating disorders - can get support when and where they need it."

Mysliwiec says although there was a significant funding boost, money trickles away when there are no specific targets or knowledge about what areas need to be prioritised.

"Specialist clinicians need to be involved in planning and to ensure that the money is protected for eating disorders rather than it being poured into a general mental health fund."

Nicki Wilson runs the volunteer group Eating Disorders Association New Zealand (EDANZ) and wants money put into educating family doctors, who are the first people to recognise signs of an eating disorder.

"Access to evidence-based treatment is not available to everybody starting with diagnosis... GPs, in particular, deserve far better education in eating disorder diagnosis and treatment."

Health Minister David Clark accepts there's a problem and says the Government is working on building up mental health services and strengthening them through the multi-million dollar cash injection.

Genevieve now works as an advocate for eating disorder patients. She wants politicians to understand the urgency in which they need to act, as the number of patients continues to grow, and the funding remains stagnant.

Do you need to speak to someone about mental health issues, or an eating disorder?

  • Free call 0800 2 EDANZ for support and advice for eating disorders.
  • Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor from the Mental Health Foundation.