The New Zealand Herald
Dad’s anorexia fears for daughter
Waiting times for treatment are causing parents to fear for lives of their children
ACanterbury father who says he’s effectively been forced to watch his daughter die from anorexia is pleading for the Government to step in urgently, saying there is nowhere near enough help for patients in New Zealand.
The number of diagnosed eating disorders in young people has spiked across the country in the last year following the Covid-19 national lockdown — and as a result the South Island’s only specialist treatment facility is under pressure with increased referrals and longer waiting times.
Desperate parents say they either have to pay hundreds of dollars a week for private specialists — including dieticians, nutritionists and psychologists — or simply sit and watch their children fade away while they wait for their turn in the public system.
There are increasing calls across the country for more funding, more specialist services and more inpatient care before the influx of patients becomes a spate of preventable and needless deaths.
The Herald revealed last week that experts have seen a 25-50 per cent increase in eating disorders in young people since the end of the level 4 lockdown last year.
Upheaval, loss of routine and structure and anxiety around the global pandemic and the future have been cited as contributing factors to a rise in anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder and avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder.
This week the Canterbury District Health Board confirmed its South Island Eating Disorders Service had experienced a “significant increase” in referrals which resulted in longer waiting times for treatment in some cases.
The service is based at Christchurch’s Princess Margaret Hospital and provides the only specialist inpatient treatment in the South Island alongside specialist outpatient treatment.
There are about eight beds available — allocated to the most severe cases.
“Following the increase in referrals to the service following Covid-19 alert levels 3 and 4, waiting times for outpatient treatment have increased,” said Canterbury District Health Board specialist mental health services general manager Greg Hamilton.
“However, individuals who are medically unwell are prioritised.
“Inpatient beds are available for people in the South Island who have a primary diagnosis of an eating disorder and have not been able to make progress from evidence-based outpatient treatment.
“Most individuals with an eating disorder can be treated on an outpatient basis.”
A Canterbury father spoke to the Herald about his daughter — considered an extreme case six times so far and admitted as an inpatient.
She has battled with anorexia for about five years since and her family have, at times, been able to do little more than watch her life almost pass before their eyes.
At the height of her illness she weighed no more than 36kg.
The man, who did not want to be named to protect his daughter’s privacy, said he knew “nothing” about anorexia and really struggled to find any support other than groups of parents in the same situation.
The first time his daughter was admitted as an inpatient she was in hospital for 13 weeks and then told she was well enough to go home.
She walked out and told her parents “I’m not eating” and her spiral began again.
Each time that happened she went back on a waiting list for treatment.
In recent times her mental health took a deadly turn and she has tried to take her own life repeatedly. “It’s horrific,” said her father. “She’s totally self-destructive… these voices in her head are telling her ‘if you eat food you’re a piece of s***’ or ‘ you need to kill yourself becuase you ate that food’.
“She’d go sometimes five days without eating anything, she’d be losing 2kg a week . . . it’s relentless, it’s constant.”
The teenager was eating “at the moment” after a serious self-harm attempt. “She’s had a turning point . . . we’re eating and we’re putting on weight, she’s getting better at the moment, she’s on the mend — but you have to realise that can change in a heartbeat,” he said.
“As soon as she stops eating or misses a meal or slacks off — I know that eating disorder will be straight back in there. My biggest fear? That she’s going to die.
“Every time the phone rings and it’s her mother I think ‘ is this it . . . is this the phone call’?”
He felt there needed to be much more long-term inpatient care in New Zealand with more outpatient support once a patient went into remission.
The man said he’d been told treatment costs for his daughter so far sat at about $2 million — and he said that could easily double as she grappled with her illness. “All they’re doing is putting a bandaid on it and sending her home,” he said.
“It’s like you’re sitting there watching your child die.”