Senator Deborah O'Neill: "It's time to break the stigma around eating disorders".

Today, June 2 2018, is World Eating Disorders Action Day. This year’s theme is to break the stigma that surrounds eating disorders. Despite the enlightened times where we feel okay to ask RUOK?, there is still incredible stigma around mental health and particularly around eating disorders.

That’s a big problem when we know that there are at least one million Australians living with an eating disorder.

As you read this now, I bet you know someone who has an eating disorder, someone in your family, in your class at school or university or someone in your workplace, or perhaps someone in your mother’s group or your local sports club.

I know someone.

Or, maybe you suspect someone you love or care for has a growing problem with food control and dangerous levels of exercise but you’re not too sure about what to say or do about it.

I know someone.

That’s why World Eating Disorders ACTION Day matters.

We all know someone.

If you’re not sure what to do I encourage you to contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (33 4673) and for urgent support, call Lifeline (13 11 14).  Call and ask for help for yourself or about how to help someone you’re worried about.

But, having a helpline is only one part of the action that’s needed to break the stigma and get treatment and support happening. There’s so much more to do.

As Labor’s Assistant Minister for Mental Health, in recent months I have been meeting with eating disorder professionals across the country, as well as carers and those with lived experience. The incredible work undertaken by eating disorder professionals across the country is life-saving – but there are so few of them and it is even worse in rural Australia.

Senator Deborah O’Neill with youth reference group at headspace Rockingham. Image supplied.

Just the other week, someone I went to university with a few decades ago contacted me. You may have heard of her: Anne Tonner author of Cold Vein. She detailed to me the struggle her family and her faced from the moment her daughter, at the age of 13, told her she would not drink water because she was worried it would make her fat.

We can break the stigma. We must break the stigma.

Here’s an essential action list of stigma busting ways we need to act nationally if the people you and I know and love are ever going to get the care they need and deserve.

We can break the stigma through improving the abilities of those who are most likely to have contact with those living with, or at risk of developing, an eating disorder. These include our general practitioners, nurses, dentists, as well as those working in schools, sporting organisations, and youth services, including our local headspaces. Around 97 per cent of the health workforce has not received sufficient training in eating disorders to feel confident to provide treatment. I have been told that a lot of people simply place eating disorders in the ‘too hard’ basket. I have heard from parents who have had to take on the burden of diagnosing their child with anorexia nervosa. These are parents who have had to take checklists to GPs to educate them that their child has an eating disorder.

We must break the stigma because early intervention is critical for sustainable recovery.

We can break the stigma through educating Australians that eating disorders know no boundaries and occur in all genders and age groups. While identifying as a female is the most commonly recognised risk factor for the development of an eating disorder, body image pressures and dissatisfaction is increasingly common amongst older women and young men, particularly muscle dysmorphia. Stereotypes that eating disorders are only experienced by those that are underweight and young women remain.

Senator O’Neill with stakeholders at an Eating Disorders Roundtable in Brisbane, QLD. Image supplied.

We must break the stigma because there is a misdiagnosis and mismanagement of the experiences of Australians who do not fit the stereotypes we are familiar with.

We can break the stigma through preventing the development of risk factors. For years now, Mission Australia’s Annual Youth Survey has indicated that young people, particularly young women, are concerned about body image. Body dissatisfaction is a known risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. Research indicates that most young people know at least one other young person who they think might have an eating disorder.

We must break the stigma because our young Australians are at the highest risk of developing an eating disorder.

We can break the stigma through better data. Did you know that in Australia, there is no official national dataset for eating disorders? All eating disorders have never been studied with nationally representative data. This means that we do not have a good understanding of the experiences of those with eating disorders across genders, cultures, locations and age groups.

We must break the stigma because understanding the prevalence of eating disorders is critical to developing evidence-based intervention strategies.

We can break the stigma through better access to funding dedicated to research into eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. Government funding for research for eating disorders is only around $1.10 per affected individual. The Department of Health tells us that, from 2008 to 2017, funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council for research into eating disorders was just $14.7 million. Eating disorder experts have made clear that when competing with other areas of mental health research eating disorders continue to be left behind.

We must break the stigma for the more than one million Australian men and women live with an eating disorder.

Today is a day for action for the people you and I know living with an eating disorder. Help me raise awareness and reduce the stigma. You can do this by calling the helpline and taking action today about your eating disorder or advice about how to help someone you know.  You can also do this by sharing this article #WeDoAct2BreakStigma #WorldEatingDisordersDay.

** Anyone needing support with eating disorders or body image issues is encouraged to contact Butterfly’s National Helpline on 1800 ED HOPE (33 4673). For urgent support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 **

Senator Deborah O’Neill is a Labor Senator for NSW, Shadow Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Shadow Assistant Minister for Innovation.