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Anorexia has the highest death rate of all psychiatric illness. Why isn’t treatment funded properly?

The cost of treatment for eating disorders is leaving patients tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket, with many going into debt to fund their treatment.

Now the Butterfly Foundation, a non-profit support group for people with eating disorders, is calling on the Government to fully fund treatment through Medicare.

Medicare currently provides limited funding for the treatment of eating disorders.

“Eating disorders are amongst the most serious of all psychiatric conditions,” clinical psychologist Chris Thornton said.

“If we take something like anorexia nervosa, it has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness.

“And if we look at statistics on suicide, more patients with anorexia are likely to commit suicide than patients with a diagnosis of depression.”

‘I spent $75,000 on specialists’

Fiona Wright is 34. She’s one of more than a million Australians living with an eating disorder.

When she finally admitted she needed help and turned to the public health system for support, she was shocked by what she found.

“Before I got sick I always had this idea that people who get sick are taken care of,” she told 7.30.

“And it was such a sharp and steep learning curve to discover that really isn’t the case.

“When I was at my lowest weight and was added to the waiting list for hospitalisation in the public system, that waiting list was 52 weeks long.

“It is woefully inadequate.

“There are public services that exist but they are incredibly underfunded and under resourced.”

The Government’s mental health care plan provides Medicare rebates for 10 sessions with a specialist, but after that the public funds dry up.

As a result, Ms Wright has paid for most of her treatment out of her own pocket.

“I’ve crunched the numbers and it turns out over seven or eight years I spent $75,000 on specialists,” she said.

“And that doesn’t count private health insurance premiums or medications — that’s extra.”

“I am a lot better than I was. I am still not well, but without that treatment I am sure I would have died.”

Mr Thornton says the 10 sessions covered by Medicare is not enough.

“Evidence tells us patients with bulimia, or binge eating, or a young person with anorexia, need a minimum of 20 sessions,” he said.

“An adult with anorexia nervosa, particularly if they’ve had it for a long time, the treatments we offer are 40 sessions.”

‘The knock-on effects are catastrophic’

A survey by the Butterfly Foundation found that one in three people go into debt to fund treatment.

It is now launching a campaign highlighting the financial and social costs of treatment for eating disorders.

“Every Australian suffering with an eating disorder, or their family, will spend everything they have and more to access treatment to get better,” Butterfly Foundation chief executive David Murray said.

“The knock on effects of this are often catastrophic.”

Mr Murray is also calling on private health insurance companies to change their policies in relation to eating disorders.

“National health system reform for public and private health treatment for eating disorders is the only way to address the financial and long-term social impacts.”

The Butterfly Foundation survey found that one in four people delay or stop treatment due to costs, and 68 per cent borrow money from family for treatments.

Employment or study is also affected, with 40 per cent of survey respondents saying they couldn’t finish their studies.

‘I didn’t talk to anyone about it’

Braiden Fitzsimmons understands those problems only too well.

For the past 18 months he has been receiving treatment for bulimia.

The 23-year-old first recognised signs of an eating disorder when he was 16. He had worked hard to lose weight then became terrified of putting it back on.

“I didn’t talk to anyone about it,” he told 7.30.

“I kept everything to myself, until I got to a really dark place and dark time in my life.

“I was actually in a really deep depression and attempted suicide.

“After that I was taken to hospital.”

Braiden had to rely on his parents to fund his ongoing treatment.

“Relying on my parents, there is definitely a great sense of guilt,” he said.

“Without them I wouldn’t have been able to get treatment, I would have had to go back to work earlier than I did and probably put my mental health on the backburner, which is something that you shouldn’t be doing.”

‘Good luck, it’s tough’

IT consultant Kelly Griffin, 41, developed anorexia nervosa after taking up body building.

Last year he was hospitalised twice after massive weight loss and damage to his heart.

After a long wait he managed to join a publicly funded treatment program, but every day counts.

“They have waiting lists for up to six to eight weeks. So if you’re in trouble and you know you’re in trouble, good luck, it’s tough,” he said.

“If I didn’t stay in hospital, and didn’t have treatment for as long as I did, then I wouldn’t be here today, there’s no question about that.”

He’s improving but says the impact of dealing with the illness has been enormous.

“I can’t put into words the amount of grief I’ve caused immediate family members, my kids, my wife. It’s huge,” Mr Griffin said.

“I think there needs to be a ton more funds going into eating disorders.”

Last year Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt asked the Medicare review committee to look at whether new treatment options for eating disorders could be made available under Medicare.

That report is due later this year.

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