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Surge in young Australians reaching out to eating disorder helplines during COVID-19

Photo: Unsplash

Following Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ recent announcement of a gruelling six-week stage-four lockdown period for Melbourne, many Victorians are struggling to cope with the demands of the newly proposed restrictions.

And, according to new data released last month by leading Australian mental health institutions, a stark rise in the number of young people reaching out to helplines for body image and eating disorder-related issues could be another side effect of the strict COVID-19 lockdown conditions.

18-year-old Katya* has grappled with anorexia nervosa for four years, spending almost one month in hospital in 2018, deemed medically unstable and confined to a wheelchair.

While the year 12 student has been able to manage her condition in the years since her hospitalisation, she believes the uncertainty associated with COVID-19 has caused her to return to restrictive habits of the past.

“Personally, my eating disorder originated from wanting to have a complete sense of control over something, so having a pandemic come in where you have limited control over basic liberties really messes with your mental health.”

“I have definitely gone back to old patterns of restricting portions and exercising excessively, so I don’t fall out of control because not having control over the way I look is the worst-case scenario for an eating disorder sufferer like me,” she said.

Although food may not appear to preoccupy individuals with anorexia constantly, Katya says it is always on her mind.

“Now that lockdown has me learning from home, where I have constant access to the kitchen, eating consumes so much of my life. The guilt that follows if I don’t stick to an eating rule I’ve placed for myself can really have a profound effect on my wellbeing. It is very scary for me because I can easily slip into a binge cycle of eating and restricting,” she said.

An empty street in Melbourne during lockdown. (Photo: Jeremy Gan)

And it appears Katya is part of a growing number of Australians struggling to cope with body image during the pandemic.

Qualitative research by ReachOut conducted in June revealed young Australians’ concerns about body image have amplified during isolation, with a 75 per cent increase in views on the foundation’s online content about body image compared to the same period last year.

Additionally, the demand for support from the Butterfly Foundation’s webchat helpline increased by 116 per cent in the last year.

Data from the Butterfly Foundation’s national helpline demonstrates calls to the service also increased by 48 per cent throughout the pandemic, compared to 2019 figures.

Psychologist and Manager of the Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline, Juliette Thomson, said stressors such as disruption to food shopping, changing exercise routines and the inability to receive face-to-face support have all contributed to the rise in demand for support.

“Eating disorders can thrive in isolation, so during a time where most people are house-bound, it is critical to stay connected with family and friends,” she told The Swanston Gazette.

“The inability to receive face-to-face support from comfortable networks such as friends, family, psychologists, dieticians and others can make those experiencing an eating disorder feel even more isolated and alone.”

While eating disorders can be debilitating, Ms Thomson said there are positive ways to support yourself during these uncertain times.

Image: Butterfly Foundation

“Try and do positive things that lift your mood. These can be free and can have an incredible impact on how you feel. Drawing and art can be a positive way to distract thinking or express moods. Breathing and mindfulness techniques can help manage feelings of stress, and reading is a great way to help relax your mind,” she said.

One in 10 Australians will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime according to estimations by the Butterfly Foundation; however, only one-quarter of those receive appropriate support for their illness.

Ms Thomson believes it is pivotal to recognise that eating disorders occur across all walks of life.

“It’s really important to remember that eating disorders can affect anyone of any age, gender, culture, sexuality or background. Eating disorders and body image issues don’t only impact young, white, cisgender, endosex women, despite the stereotypes often portrayed in the media. They can affect anybody at any time, but reaching out for support and talking to someone via our Helpline can really help."

She said the Butterfly Foundation is continually striving to provide proper support for sufferers.

“Butterfly Helpline counsellors have competence training from LGBTI Health Alliance, Aboriginal Cultural Competency Training and an understanding of the challenges people from different cultural backgrounds face. There is also a Translation and Interpreting Service that is free and available to access via the Helpline. It is available to anyone from a non-English speaking background (via 131 500).”

With Victoria entering another strict six-week lockdown period, student Katya feels all Victorians should check in on the wellbeing of those around them.

“I think it is so necessary to extend support for people with eating disorders, because it is prevalent within society, regardless of whether or not we realise it. We really need to work towards increasing awareness; otherwise, it could be even more fatal than it already is.”

Currently, one in five eating disorder cases are fatal, giving it the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing an eating disorder, we encourage you to reach out for support. Butterfly Foundation’s National Helpline is open every day between 8 am and 12 midnight AEST- call 1800 33 4673, connect via webchat or email For urgent support call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

*Katya’s real name was withheld for privacy reasons.


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