Anorexia: New Zealand's least understood mental health disorder - and how app Love Your Kite is trying to fix that

A common struggle for many suffering is not knowing where to reach out for help or what resources to turn to.
A common struggle for many suffering is not knowing where to reach out for help or what resources to turn to. Photo credit: Supplied.

Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition - yet eating disorders remain woefully misunderstood.

Often compounded by anxiety, trauma or obsessive-compulsive tendencies, anorexia, bulimia and binge eating are incredibly complex mental illnesses. 

In some cases, patients maintain an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted, dysmorphic view of their body. 

Many operate in a state of denial and cannot see the dangers of their obsessive fixations, such as a severely restricted diet, constant preoccupation with food and excessive exercise.

As with many things that are misunderstood, there is still a stigma associated with eating disorders, compounded by an ongoing lack of resources and understanding of its complexities.

A common struggle for many suffering is not knowing where to reach out for help or what resources to turn to, says Genevieve Mora. 

The co-founder of mental health charity Voices of Hope and proud survivor of anorexia is today dedicated to offering hope to those fighting mental illness. 

Mora told Newshub in the first instance many patients find extreme difficulty in recognising a problem and taking steps to address it. 

Seeking treatment means admitting something is wrong, and inevitably a solution to that can include gaining weight - a prospect that can be traumatic for patients.

"A lot of patients are in denial and have problems reaching out for help," Mora said.

Mora and Hannah Hardy-Jones - a mental health advocate and the founder of Kite, a wellbeing app targeted at mental health support for new mothers - are now collaborating to create a resource tailored specifically toward eating disorders.

The women have established a PledgeMe fundraiser in a bid to kickstart the 'Love your Kite' app - a 40-week programme based on the existing Kite platform, designed to support those struggling with eating disorders and their journey to recovery.

"People can download this app, it's private, and can work on themselves," Mora explained.

"The app is like a friend you carry around in your pocket, that you can turn to when you need."

Reflecting on her experience, Mora acknowledged the sense of shame that shrouded her battle with anorexia, with a lack of available resources intensifying feelings of isolation and stigma.

She says the app will be particularly useful to people who are struggling through their illness alone without the support of friends or family.

"The app will fill those gaps by offering practical tools that can be completed on your own," she explained.

"A lot of patients don't feel ready to seek treatment, but it's up to them to complete the exercises and [take that step towards] helping themselves.

"The kite symbolises freedom and wellness. These bite-sized activities will be written as if your free and well self is supporting you through your journey."

The Love your Kite programme is based on microlearning, or the completion of small, five-minute activities each day across a range of achievable 'Kite' modules. Focusing on the daily completion of manageable, practical tasks will help to generate a sense of accomplishment and pride, says Mora.

"There will be a variety of modules - self-worth, body image, purpose, anxiety, mindfulness.

"The activities are tailored to suit anyone who is struggling, rather than specific types of patients."

The activities will be non-clinical and mostly focused on journaling - for example, with a user listing the things about their body that they're grateful for - as well as short mindfulness exercises.

All activities and advice offered in the app will be overseen by a psychologist and a dietician, Mora reiterated, to ensure modules are not triggering for users.

An in-app 'are you okay' module will also be available to help guide patients towards professional help, alongside links to mental health resources  - however, Mora made it clear the Love your Kite resource is not a replacement for therapy or clinical treatment. 

"It could be a good resource for those who perhaps haven't had an official diagnosis or those who 'don't fit the bill' - the classic medical definition of an eating disorder patient," Mora explained.

A common misconception is that eating disorders are visible, although this is not the case. The spectrum of what constitutes disordered eating is vast and nuanced, and the common trope that sufferers are discernibly thin perpetuates incredibly unhelpful medical practices. Patients who may battle a distorted body image but are not considered medically underweight can be refused treatment.

Many general practitioners still rely on body-mass index (BMI) - the healthy weight range for a patient based on their height and mass - as a diagnostic tool. Yet to this day, legitimate sufferers are being refused clinical help as their weight does not 'fit the bill' of an eating disorder patient.

"Eating disorders can't always be seen," Mora reiterated. "Society has a long way to go. I still hear stories of people being turned away or not taken seriously as they are not clinically classified as underweight.

"A lot of change needs to happen in the medical field."

Mora and Hardy-Jones have raised $20,000 towards their $25,000 target - however, developing the Love your Kite app will cost around $50,000.

The money will be used to develop the app, create content, source clinical input and oversight, marketing and website and design support. 

The founders do not want cost to be a barrier, and will therefore use the funding to give 10,000 subscriptions free of charge for those who cannot afford it. Love your Kite will then work on a koha/donation model.

Mora is grateful for the "awesome support" the initiative has received, with many of the donors coming forward with their own stories of eating disorders.

"A lot of the donors appear to have that lived experience or a special connection with the issue," she said.

Visit the Love your Kite PledgeMe here