Australian parliament hears lived experiences of eating disorders as MPs call for better treatment options and increased efforts

6 Dec, 2022

InsideOut Institute applauds the Members of Parliament who last week shared deeply personal stories of caring for, and working with, people with eating disorders. MPs from across the chamber echoed calls for improved services and increased efforts to address eating disorders, with the universal sentiment: more needs to be done - and now. 

The House of Representatives reflected the sense of urgency that those of us in the field have been experiencing in recent years – and we want to keep the conversation going and momentum increasing. 

[Trigger warning: Accounts of acute eating disorders, their medical treatment, and hospitalisation]

So, what happened in parliament?

Independent MP Zoe Daniel brought the issue of eating disorders to parliament, as a “Matter of Public Importance”. More specifically, the rise and treatment of eating disorders among young people. Several MPs from across the chamber spoke to the issue, many giving impassioned speeches and sharing their own personal experiences of eating disorders. 

It is a timely and much needed conversation, given the lamentable rise in eating disorders during and since COVID – both in the number of presentations and their severity. While rates of other mental illnesses have stablised since the height of the pandemic and are returning to baseline, eating disorders don’t appear to be following the same trend. 

Ms Daniel told story after story of her constituents, and the struggles they have faced getting help for their children battling eating disorders.  

“I have had mothers from Goldstein on the phone and in my office asking me to do something before their children die,” she told the House. 

“These are stories of heartbreak, and families are at breaking point.”  

She called for a “circuit breaker” to stop the repeat hospital admissions. 

Assistant Minister for Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Emma McBride re-stated the support of the current government and its ongoing commitment to improve the lives of people living with eating disorders, their families and supports.

“We're working to provide early, effective, evidence-based treatment options, helping to reduce stigma and supporting highly trained healthcare professionals to reduce the number of people affected by eating disorders.” 

Assistant Minister McBride pointed out that historically, eating disorders have received the lowest research dollar spend of any mental health condition and said that: “together, we all must do more”. 

Assistant Minister for Health and Aged Care Ged Kearney also acknowledged that whilst vast improvements to treatment have been made in recent decades, “more needs to be done.”  

“I think it's very rare that we get an MPI (Matter of Public Importance) that all sides of this House can speak to with such passion and concern. It is a very important issue.” 

“But it isn't just a matter of opening beds in hospitals. Yes, that is vital, but we need a better trained and more trained workforce. We need to make sure that we have people there to care for them. We need wraparound services for people in their homes and in society.”

Liberal MP Andrew Wallace rose to describe the years of hardship his family has faced while caring for a daughter with an eating disorder. 

“I have walked this walk for almost 20 years, personally. There is no greater pain for a parent than to see your child go through an eating disorder. One that has nearly cost my daughter her life on numerous occasions.” 

“We are failing children and families across this country, still - even with the amount of money that we are putting into this problem.”  

“We have got to do better.” 

Mr Wallace highlighted the important steps taken by the former federal government, which committed significant funding to eating disorder treatment and research.  

“We're providing some funding into the research, but if there was any other form of illness that was impacting on a million lives in Australia we'd be pumping a hell of a lot more money into it than what we do now.”

Nationals MP Barnaby Joyce shared his experience of caring for a daughter with an eating disorder – an illness he described as “mind-twisting”.  

“Rarely do you get to stand on something that's very close to one's heart, but I am on this.” 

“There's the traumatisation of hospitalisation, then the tube-feeding, then being by someone's bed and saying to them, 'You're going to die.' This is repeated by so many parents.” 

“Then there's the bright side, the incredible psychologist doctors, who can do what you as a parent can't, and that's get inside a person's head and get to the point of trying to turn the situation around.” 

“This is so important. The earlier you realise the problem, the better chance you have of dealing with it” 

“[This issue] is incredibly important. It resides on all sides of the chamber, and I hope there's a chance, if someone out there is maybe looking at their daughter or possibly their son, that this tweaks something with them, and they say, 'I'm going to do something about this right now.'” 

Independent MP Dr Monique Ryan, a former paediatric neurologist, described how a combination of social isolation, disrupted routines, family stress, interruption of sport and recreational activities, food insecurity, fear of contagion, and increased use of screens for school and for social interactions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic had contributed to the rise in mental ill-health and eating disorders among young people. 

“We owe it to our children, and to all of those who are suffering right now, to do better,” said Dr. Ryan. 

Independent MP Rebekha Sharkie highlighted the difficult pathway to diagnosis and treatment. 

“It's horrific that we're not doing enough as a nation,” she said. 

Labor MP Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah described the challenges of working with acute eating disorder patients as a senior clinician at Melbourne Hospital, The Alfred. 

“We're really good as a health system at fixing simple things like a broken arm or a broken leg. We are really bad at fixing complex problems that require multidisciplinary care, and this is all the more reason why we are also committing $13 million towards a centre for research excellence which has already opened at Sydney University, the Charles Perkins Centre, and $20 million towards community-based eating disorder support units, the kinds of supports I never had as a doctor.” 

Independent MP Ella Chaney, Labor Dr Gordon Reid and Labor MP Randolph Freelander also spoke to the issue. 

We commend Ms Daniel for bringing this issue to the chamber and for giving a voice to the lived experience in our national parliament, and we commend the MPs who rose to support and contribute to this important discussion.  

What happens now? 

Ms Daniel called for a change to the current landscape and highlighted the need for a “circuit breaker… to stop the repeat hospital admissions and stress”. 

We agree. 

However, our favoured approach is by focusing on multi-disciplinary teams in the community. There are far too few well-qualified and accessible mental health professionals in the community who can provide evidence-based care. That way, people can be supported, as much as is safely possible, in their local communities. 

Providing better community services – well trained psychologists, GPs, dietitians etc – can be a safety net for those leaving inpatient care, as well as a way to intervene much earlier.  

If it can be delivered all in one place – a “hub” – then all the better. But let’s not build more hospitals. Let’s make our existing hospitals fit to admit people with eating disorders to administer brief lifesaving intervention, then let's have the properly staffed and trained teams in the community waiting to wrap around them when they leave hospital and provide the ongoing psychological, medical and dietetic treatment needed to get people well.

Every state government and the federal government needs to invest in funding and building these teams.  

There has undoubtedly been a shift in recent years – in the national dialogue, the funding levels, and the commitment – both at state and federal level. We are grateful and we applaud our leaders for that. 

But what this fervent discussion in parliament has highlighted is that there is a long way to go - and it’s not going to be a quick fix. As accurately pointed out by Assistant Minister McBride: 

“This issue is beyond one term of parliament, beyond one level of government, beyond one individual and beyond one policy,” she said. 

So what happens now? We keep on, keeping on. And we keep the conversation going.