Demand for treatment to deal with eating disorders has doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, this year but advocates hope a meeting today will be the first step in addressing the crisis.
As reported by the Herald in September, Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand had four times as many callers to their 0800 number this year while clinicians in the private sector had reported a similar increase in referral rates - pushing services to breaking point.
Chairwoman Nicki Wilson said one specialist told her their District Health Board's paediatric inpatient caseload had more than doubled in the past year on the back of already significant increases.
She said services could not keep up with demand and children as young as 8 were having to wait weeks, sometimes months, to get treatment for life-threatening eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa.
But Wilson hoped a hui today, run in partnership with The Werry Centre, being attended by DHB representatives, psychologists, counsellors, volunteers and sector experts would be a step towards a solution.
She believed there needed to be a sector-led specialist panel, supported by the Government, to look at what could be done to improve services.
"Eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia are treatable illnesses – people can get better quite quickly if they are treated early enough, but that's just not happening."
The mortality rate for people with eating disorders is one of the highest of all psychiatric illnesses and it was common for a person's condition to become life-threatening due to the long wait for treatment nationwide.
"People of all ages have ended up being hospitalised for refeeding while they wait for access to an eating disorder service," she said.
Bridget Gray has seen first-hand how dangerous the delay in treatment can be.
She sought help for her teenage daughter who was struggling with food issues earlier this year and after finally being referred to the Kauri Centre, the Auckland community treatment service for mental health disorders, she was told the waitlist was five to six months long.
She tried a private clinic who said the wait would be six to eight weeks.
The family struggled along with the help of a psychologist until things got so bad her daughter was hospitalised.
It was that admission which saw Gray's daughter boosted up the waitlist and put into the care of Tupu Ora who deal specifically with eating disorders - but she's well aware that means someone else will likely have to wait longer.
"It's all wrong. You have to end up being so clinically unwell to get the specialist help that's needed. It really is ambulance at the bottom of the cliff - we shouldn't need young people to get so unwell to get the help they deserve," Gray said.
"Clearly this rapid increase in cases needs addressing, otherwise we're going to lose kids – the demand is too great."
Eating Disorders Association of New Zealand volunteer Kelly Mahuika said Covid-19 seemed to have exacerbated the situation due to the stress of the pandemic and people spending more time with their families, who were picking up on the signs.
"We have parents absolutely desperate for help. We're hearing of more and more parents taking their children to emergency departments to seek help. I've had parents call saying their child has passed out from malnutrition and they don't know where to turn to for help."
Part of the problem was that each district health board ran their eating disorder treatment service differently making it hard for people to know where to turn.
Dr Marion Roberts, who runs a private treatment clinic in Auckland, said demand had increased by four times since April this year and agreed Covid-19 had likely contributed to that.
She said the availability of skilled clinicians was drastically below what was needed to meet the demand.
Wilson said the organisation would like to see GPs upskilled so they could better diagnose and treat patients while they waited for specialist care.