Where is Canberra’s promised $13.5 million eating disorder treatment centre?


While many people relished bunkering down at the height of coronavirus restrictions, the isolation brought about by the pandemic prompted a 33 per cent increase in demand for eating disorder support over March and April.

And in Canberra, it has renewed questions about when the promised $13.5 million residential treatment centre will be delivered.

ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja said the treatment centre was “well underway” despite the funds allocated not being spent until the 2021-22 federal budget.

But for families who have had to deal with the lack of support and facilities in Canberra, that is not soon enough.

“I was fairly convinced that every second day she was going to die, and it was a long time before we could get proper psychological support,” Trish Clifford said, recounting her experience with daughter Rose.

“We limped along for a long time.”

Rose, a PhD student in psychology in Canberra, battled with an eating disorder while she was at university.

At one point she was hospitalised and given a blood transfusion because, like her body, her blood was starving, desperately in need of iron.

“The levels dropped so low that [hospital doctors said], ‘I’m surprised you’re actually conscious right now’,” Rose said.

Her mum Trish added: “Because of the physical consequences, eating disorders have the ability to take someone’s life quite quickly if not dealt with appropriately.

“I just want to say, we’re still here.”

‘Every day you don’t take her is another day she is closer to death’

A young woman celebrates the joy of life in a foreign city.
Rose Clifford overcame her eating disorder through appropriate care and support and now enjoys an eventful life.(Supplied)

Rose can trace the beginning of her eating disorder back to her childhood.

“I was bullied about my appearance as a young girl and I think all of those kinds of experiences came flooding back when I got older,” Rose said.

But Rose’s habits quickly morphed into a dangerous “obsession” and she became trapped in a “vicious cycle of not eating and exercising too much”.

“I lost a lot of weight. It was impacting me mentally, physically. It took over,” she said.

All this was happening while Trish watched on, feeling helpless as her only child was wasting away.

“I could actually smell the starvation on her breath, because when you don’t eat, you develop a certain breath smell,” Trish said.

“But you don’t know that as a parent. Why would you?”

Trish took her daughter to their general practitioner, who referred Rose to a community-based Eating Disorders Program (EDP) in Canberra.

But rather than beginning treatment, Rose was put on a waiting list.

“They got us in as soon as they could,” Trish said.

Despite the delays, both Rose and Trish said they have nothing but gratitude for the EDP, who they said went above and beyond to help patients despite being chronically under-resourced.

Indeed, a recent Legislative Assembly inquiry into youth mental health heard evidence from ACT chief psychiatrist Dr Denise Riordan, who conceded the EDP had only one psychiatrist working one day per week.

So when will the promised treatment centre be delivered?

Silhouette of a slim woman sitting on a wooden dock or jetty next to water in low light, with her head in her hands.
Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses with one of the highest mortality rates.(Pexels)

Chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, Kevin Barrow, said that for a “true recovery” patients needed longer term stays in an environment where they could learn and adopt skills to get well, such as a residential treatment facility.

“What we see often is people are going into hospital with acute symptoms that need addressing, but the psychological symptoms are not addressed,” Mr Barrow said.

“Individuals get discharged into the community and they end up back in hospital.”

Recognising the need for a residential treatment facility in Canberra, $13.5 million of funding was announced by ACT Liberal Senator Zed Seselja before last year’s federal election.

Officially, the promised funding for what will be the ACT’s first residential treatment facility is on track — the Commonwealth did not actually plan on spending the funds until the 2021-22 federal budget.

But that has angered people like Rose and Trish, who were filled with joy and relief at the time of the announcement as they believed the centre would be delivered much sooner.

In a statement to the ABC, Senator Seselja said that despite not having spent the money, “work on delivering this important service for Canberrans is well underway, with the Department of Health working closely with the ACT Government”.

“Ensuring people with an eating disorder to have access to appropriate supports and care is a priority for the Government,” he said.

“I was proud to make the commitment of $13.5 million last year for the ACT’s first residential eating disorder treatment centre.”

Senator Seselja also pointed out that the Morrison Government had in 2018 created new items under Medicare to give patients with eating disorders more access to psychological and dietetic services.

Zed Seselja stands in front of some shops and restaurants in Canberra.
Liberal Senator Zed Seselja says “ensuring people with an eating disorder to have access to appropriate supports and care is a priority for the Government.”(ABC News)

Experts say there is still ‘a long way to go’

“Eating disorders are a complex mental illness [with] one of the highest mortality rates,” Mr Barrow said.

“They are travelling vast distances and at considerable expense.”

The coronavirus pandemic shone a light on the need for people with eating disorders to be in community with others.

“Eating disorders thrive in isolation,” Mr Barrow said.

“I heard an expert talk a few weeks ago and say that if an eating disorder was like a gun, then genetics is loading the gun and the environment pulls the trigger.

“If you look at the environment that our kids are living in today, social media is everywhere, body comparisons are unreal and in our face everyday.

Demand for the Butterfly Foundation’s services was already rising before coronavirus, with a 138 per cent increase in contacts over the past two years.

But that only highlights how much an increase in support is needed — and Rose is taking on part of that responsibility.

She has been well now for several years and, in between studying, working as a researcher and planning a wedding, she has been volunteering at schools across Canberra, educating young people about the illness.

“I talk to younger girls to say, ‘Hey, if you’re feeling a bit weird or things aren’t sitting right for you, do speak out, don’t just assume it will go away or that there’s nothing wrong,'” she said.

“I think having someone to talk to at age 13, 14, 15 might have prevented me from developing an eating disorder and having to go through that unpleasant experience.”

If you, or anyone you know, is experiencing an eating disorder or body image concerns, contact Butterfly Foundation National Helpline on 1800 33 4673 (ED HOPE) or visit butterfly.org.au



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