Eating disorder patients and advocates taking petition to Parliament over crisis in care

Eating disorder patients, their families and health professionals are taking a petition to Parliament over what they're calling a health care crisis.

Patient numbers have been rising steadily year after year. But the families say New Zealand lacks the facilities, funding or expertise to deal with it.

Rebecca Toms is fighting a battle on two fronts: advocating for change nationwide in the treatment of eating disorders whilst supporting her own daughter's recovery.

"Some families, their daughter or sons are being sent home with a life plan, sent to die which is shocking because no one should die from an eating disorder if you catch it early," Toms says.

Her daughter did catch it early and is doing OK now but when Toms first tried to get her help, she couldn't.

"There's not enough support in the community because if you're not severe enough, you're just left wondering what to do, who to go to and who to see," Toms says.

She went from a GP to a dietician to being turned down by the Canterbury District Health Board (CDHB) for inpatient care.

"Just not having that wrap-around care, just being left to navigate it," Toms says.

It was only when she came across dietician Victoria Schonwald who trained in Australia and treats only eating disorder patients that their path to recovery began.

"I see a range of people from eight years old to, I think 75 is the oldest," Schonwald says.

Schonwald says there is a drastic shortage of expertise in New Zealand and a lack of support services and funding.

"I've been trying to reach out to professionals in New Zealand with not much luck so I've gone overseas to find mentors and supervisors in America."

The shortage in specialists is exacerbated by the sharp rise in patient numbers.

After putting questions to our local district health board, Newshub learnt eating disorder admissions have almost doubled over the past ten years in Canterbury alone.

And while a number are receiving both inpatient and outpatient care, at the time of enquiring there was also 74 people on a waitlist for help. But waiting for some can be deadly.

Calls to New Zealand's Eating Disorder Association (EDANZ) helpline have more than doubled in the past 18 months.

The EDANZ chief executive says this is a health care crisis.

"There are so many people suffering, and people becoming life-threateningly ill with illnesses that are treatable," CEO Nicki Wilson says.

Wilson says eating disorders affect all ages, genders, socioeconomic groups and nationalities and once again the Budget this year offered nothing to the sector.

"People are simply not accessing treatment and becoming so unwell, and people are ending up in hospital who shouldn't be hospitalised. People are dying, it is urgent," she says.

Toms, Schonwald and Wilson will all be taking the petition calling for change directly to the Beehive on Thursday.

"People don't choose to have an eating disorder, it's actually a really serious mental illness that has to be taken seriously," Schonwald says.

"It's not my daughter's fault, it's not anyone's fault that they get an eating disorder and it's not a sign of attention, it's not a slow suicide," Toms adds.

This mother wants an urgent response to bring our treatment up to world standard.