Eating disorders thrive in isolation: COVID-19 delivers a perfect storm for 280,000 regional and remote Australian sufferers

94% of people with an eating disorder described living in regional and remote Australia as an obstacle to accessing help – even without the enforced social distancing brought on by COVID-19.

Butterfly Foundation today launched its MAYDAYS 2020 #PushingPastPostcodes campaign highlighting the daily battle for treatment and support of more than 280,000 Australians living with an eating disorder in regional, remote, and very remote (RRR) communities.

Butterfly Foundation CEO, Kevin Barrow said the launch of MAYDAYS 2020 #PushingPastPostcodes is a crucial step for improved access to affordable and safe eating disorder treatment and recovery services for all Australians, regardless of their postcode.

“There should be no barrier to access comprehensive and lifesaving eating disorder treatment and services in RRR communities – be it geographic location, cost or complexity of the illness,” said Mr Barrow. “Eating disorders do not discriminate by postcode, age, gender, ethnic background, culture, size or shape. Living remotely and having to travel long distances for appropriate eating disorder treatment highlights the gaps in our health system.

“People living in RRR communities shouldn’t have to fight to get help for their mental health. This lack of access to available treatment and care in these communities is putting lives at risk,” he added.

Eating disorders are a silent battleground for each person, and these mental illnesses thrive in secrecy and silence. COVID-19 is adding new pressure and isolation to the already significant challenges for people living with eating disorders in RRR Australia. Ironically, the crippling feeling of isolation and distress is a reality that will continue for people with eating disorders long after the pandemic has passed.

Butterfly’s #PushingPastPostcodes survey findings released today, found that the pandemic has impacted 80% of surveyed Australians living with an eating disorder in RRR communities. Alarmingly, it has also affected the ability of 63% of people in these areas with an eating disorder and their carers from accessing treatment and support.

Other key report findings in RRR areas include:

  • 92% of healthcare workers need more training and education in eating disorders treatment and care.
  • 99% believe there need to be more awareness around the eating disorders services available in remote communities
  • 78% of people with an eating disorder are going without the basic and essential health requirements due to treatment costs, and 17% reportedly paying between $5,000-$10,000 in out of pocket costs per year
  • 34% had to travel more than 100kms to receive care.

“This year Butterfly is committed to raising awareness of the need to bridge the gap to access safe, evidence-based eating disorder treatment and recovery, irrespective of postcode,” said Mr Barrow. “We need to establish community-based intermediate levels of care and we need to better coordinate mental healthcare with physical healthcare and nutritional support, which is critical to ensuring people do not fall through the gaps in the continuum of care.

“We should also investigate options for virtual support in rural and remote areas, for instance, this could include a dedicated eating disorders on-line forums and on-line meal support could provide much needed support for those struggling to access care.”

Speaking from her lived experience with an eating disorder, Tarsh, a mum of six and nurse from regional VIC said, “Eating disorders love social isolation. We need to immediately connect with people who are disconnected from care and treatment in regional Australia right now and look at a long-term plan of managing this when we are out of COVID-19 isolation.

“What’s needed is access to comprehensive treatment teams in our own communities so that when we are discharged from a metro centre, we continue to feel supported. I needed a lot of care when I returned home from inpatient treatment in the city to help me become well and stay well, but living in a rural community just provided me with more challenges.”

Tarsh continued, “It was hard enough to travel and access treatment in the city; the cost of care and accommodation and the travel to access inpatient services and specialists at various times all contributed to the guilt and stress it was putting on me and my family.”

Mental Health Nurse Haylee, who works within a multidisciplinary team supporting people living with eating disorders in regional Albury-Wodonga said, “A national credentialing system is also needed so you know that when a person is presenting with symptoms of an eating disorder, they are receiving the right care at the right time by the right person, and that their experience will be validated and heard.”

Butterfly is committed to working with local communities and governments to assist them in delivering all aspects of service planning, development and evaluation in order to improve access to and awareness of eating disorder treatment and recovery services irrespective of postcodes,” said Mr Barrow.

For more information on MAYDAYS and key #PushingPastPostcodes survey findings please go to www.butterfly.org.au/MAYDAYS. A full version of the survey report is available here.

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