Young women with eating disorders aren’t getting the help they need, study says

According to a new survey, young women with eating disorders have reached out to two or more doctors in hopes to get treatment. Getty Images

Young girls suffering from eating disorders are not being referred to the appropriate mental health services that are necessary for their treatment, a survey has found.

According to a survey commissioned by a UK charity called Beat, a third of respondents say their family doctors were not able to identify and diagnose eating disorders – like anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa– in their patients, while half of respondents rated the care they received as “poor” or “very poor.”

“We know early intervention and speed in referring people with eating disorders is critical if they are to make the best possible recovery,” says Andrew Radford, chief executive of the charity Beat, to Independent. “It takes great courage for sufferers of eating disorders to come forward and often the first person they talk to is their [general practitioner]. Unfortunately many of our respondents identified poor care from their doctor with many [general practitioners’] not knowing what the real signs and symptoms are.”
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The survey asked almost 1,700 patients with eating disorders ranging in age starting at 10 years old – 1,267 of which actually sought help from a doctor.

According to the results, 16 per cent of patients who sought help did so more than five years after they recognized their first symptom and 15 per cent sought up between one and two years following their first symptom.

In fact, 63 per cent of respondents say they reached out to more than one doctor for help.

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The majority, however, don’t have much confidence in their general practitioner (GP). The survey found that a combined 66 per cent of people who sought help from their GP either disagreed or strongly disagreed that their doctor knew how to help them with their eating disorder (36 per cent and 30 per cent, respectively).

Besides not being equipped with the proper knowledge around the issue, Radford says some patients were told that their access to these services depended on their weight and ignored the mental health concerns associated with these disorders.

“Eating disorders are a competitive disorder – to say to someone you are not ill enough for treatment, you need to be thinner, you are basically saying go away, make yourself more ill,” he tells The Telegraph.

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While a survey like this has yet to be conducted among Canadian sufferers, clinical and health psychologist Dr. Carmen Weiss says Canada isn’t too far off from what UK patients are experiencing.

“Certainly this happens a lot,” she says. “I think it’s most often happening with people who aren’t severely underweight so usually what I’m finding from doctors is that they tend to be more nervous when people are really severely underweight.  But apart from that, if people are binge eating and purging, but they’re at a normal weight – or sometimes a little bit above that – then the GPs really aren’t responding and think it’s a big deal when actually in can be incredibly dangerous.”

According to Weiss, waiting to treat can cause issues such as loss of electrolytes, heart problems, eating issues and problems with their potassium dropping to dangerous levels.

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Another issue Weiss points out is that because Canada has a publically-funded healthcare system, GPs have become the gatekeepers to these programs that exist but have limited availability. This may require doctors to be a bit more selective with their patients based on who’s at greater risk.

But eating disorders have both mental and physical health components associated with them, Weiss said.

“You often need multi-disciplinary teams to treat eating disorders,” Weiss explains. “But what it really comes down to is behaviour and having control over their ability to eat and your control comes from the mental [component]. Obviously some physiological effects of eating disorders can actually start to make it difficult to eat over time, but certainly the motivation aspect comes from [behaviour].”
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In any given time in Canada, as many as 600,000 to 990,000 Canadians may meet the criteria for an eating disorder, the majority of which are girls and women (80 per cent), the National Eating Disorder Information Centre reports.

Anorexia nervosa has the highest overall mortality rate of any mental illness and is estimated to be between 10 per cent and 15 per cent.

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