Harriet Harrex remembers feeling numb when a doctor told her she was being sent home to die because there was nothing more they could do.

At that time, the then-27-year-old weighed 32kg and was at rock bottom in her fight against anorexia nervosa - a serious and potentially deadly illness causing distorted body image and an unwarranted fear of being overweight.

It was Friday, August 23, last year. Or, as she describes it, her darkest day.

Harrex's story comes as New Zealand sees an alarming rise in the demand on eating disorder services during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Advertisement

Now 28, Harrex wants to share her experience to help raise awareness about anorexia - the biggest killer among psychiatric illnesses - and help break down the stigma attached to the disease.

"I want people to know that there is hope, there is light at the end of the tunnel. You can recover. I wish I had known that when I was at rock bottom."

Harrex had just finished a degree in nutrition at the University of Otago when her illness returned.

"I just remember feeling this sense of things aren't in my control. I thought I'd just lose some weight and it will be fine and then I started to get more and more unwell until last year when it got really bad - the worst I had ever been.

"I remember thinking I could actually die."

She said after being admitted to hospital for two weeks, her doctor told her there was nothing more they could do.

"They said 'we are sending you home to die'."

As a "last resort", Harrex said her Dunedin doctor was trying to get her a bed at Princess Margaret Hospital's mental health unit in Christchurch but there was a long waiting list. It is the only place in the South Island that treats patients with severe eating disorders.

Advertisement
Subscribe to Premium

"He didn't know if I could get a bed or whether I would still be alive by that time."

Fortunately, two weeks later she got a call - there was a bed free.

"On that first phone call I actually turned it down because I was so scared about going and leaving my husband and I didn't know how long it would be."

She realised it was her last chance of survival and accepted the bed. She spent eight weeks recovering from a disease that had been haunting her since she was 14.

When she was 15, she spent six months at a mental health unit in Porirua.

"Back then I thought it was an illness that would be with me for life but I want people to know you can recover and there is hope."

Advertisement

Nicki Wilson, chairwoman of Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand (EDANZ), said it had seen four times the number of online inquiries and calls compared to this time last year.

Wilson said part of the reason for the rise was due to people feeling isolated, amplifying their eating disorder. The other reason was people were spending more time during lockdown with their families, who were picking up on the signs.

Genevieve Mora, co-founder of mental health charity Voices of Hope and eating disorder survivor, is helping launch an app to offer patients more support. Photo / Supplied
Genevieve Mora, co-founder of mental health charity Voices of Hope and eating disorder survivor, is helping launch an app to offer patients more support. Photo / Supplied

Genevieve Mora, co-founder of mental health charity Voices of Hope and an eating disorder survivor herself, said she'd also had an influx of people battling eating disorders contacting her for support during the Covid-19 pandemic.

"My days are full of people reaching out, desperate for help. Services are over-flooded and something needs to be done. We need to work collaboratively to find a solution," Mora said.

But Wilson said Kiwis battling eating disorders often faced barriers to getting treatment.

She said GPs didn't receive enough education and support around the disease and patients needed an early diagnosis and referral to health services to receive prompt evidence-based treatment.

Advertisement

"Individuals are needlessly suffering, their illnesses are worsening, recovery is harder, families are suffering."

She said specialist services provided by district health boards were under-resourced and waiting lists were unacceptably long - and the situation was worsening.

Eating Disorders Assoication New Zealand (EDANZ)'s chair Nicki Wilson says more support is needed. Photo / Supplied
Eating Disorders Assoication New Zealand (EDANZ)'s chair Nicki Wilson says more support is needed. Photo / Supplied

"We just don't have the workforce to meet the demand - we need more people trained in mental health and specialised in helping people with eating disorders.


Families were a key resource in recovery, she said, but parents and carers needed knowledge, skills and support.

"We don't have the data needed to demonstrate the size and nature of the issue for affected individuals, families, the health system and the community as a whole. The Government is funding a service and not measuring outcomes.

But EDANZ is still there to offer support for sufferers and resources for carers of people with eating disorders

"Eating disorders are treatable and recovery is possible at any age and any stage."

Advertisement

New app to support New Zealanders battling an eating disorder:

Mora was contacted by Hannah Hardy Jones, who 18 months ago launched an app called the Kite for Mums - a platform to help mums battling post-natal depression.

The pair have collaborated to start a new app called Love your Kite specifically for people with eating disorders. Mora said the kite symbolised freedom and wellness.

The app will include more than 40 bespoke modules, with practical tools being shared each day. Topics will include stress management, coping with anxiety, self worth, relationships, having a recovery mindset and specific support for carers.

The pair stressed they were not clinical experts and the app was intended only as gateway to help people take that next step in seeking medical help or to act as additional support.

Hannah Hardy Jones launched an app called the Kite for Mums - a platform to help mums battling post-natal depression - now she's tackling eating disorders. Photo / Supplied
Hannah Hardy Jones launched an app called the Kite for Mums - a platform to help mums battling post-natal depression - now she's tackling eating disorders. Photo / Supplied

They launched a Pledge Me campaign to raise $25,000 by October 6, which will enable them to create the app and gift 10,000 subscriptions free of charge for those who cannot afford it. The app will be run on a koha/donation model.

They have already raised more than $7500.

Advertisement

"Our hope is that Love your Kite fills the gap. We are not suggesting this app resource should be used instead of professional support, but that it will be used alongside it," Hardy-Jones said.

Where to get help:

• EDANZ: 0800 2 EDANZ or (09) 522 2679. For more information click here.
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.