Staff member in Cath Lab in scrubsStaff in scrubs in the Cath LabStaff in scrubs in the Cath Lab


Early intervention is key to curb spike in eating disorders

The number of referrals of young people to Austin Health’s Adolescent and Child Eating Disorders inpatient program more than doubled in 2020.

In a usual year, there are about 70 referrals to the program, but this figure skyrocketed to 150 referrals last year.

Austin Health Paediatrician, Catie Fleming, believes the increase may be due to a number of different factors, including the lockdowns Victoria has experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a lack of social interaction and usual routines with school closures and the cessation of sports and activities – as well as anxiety around the pandemic itself.

“Every teenager we see has a very different background. For many young people, the lockdowns have led to their first ever experience of mental health difficulties,” she says.

The median age of teenagers admitted to hospital is usually 15 but recently, the age is even younger, with year 7 and 8 students presenting.

“It’s students who were transitioning to high school during lockdown,” Catie says.

“It’s been harder for them to establish those social connections.”

Catie says many of the patients she sees are so unwell by the time they first come to hospital that they need admission straight away.

“Their physical condition is often a major concern – they’re underweight, pale, dizzy or fainting,” she says.

However, it is important to recognise that many young people are not underweight – but the significant changes to their eating or exercise can still make them dangerously unwell.

Some of the signs and changes to watch out for include healthy eating and exercise which start to become excessive or compulsive, changes in food preferences or eating alone, poor concentration, irritability and disengagement from family and friends.

Catie’s message to the community is not to wait if there are concerns - early intervention is vital.

“Start with a visit to your GP - they’re a great resource and can assess your child and point you in the right direction,” she says. “Teenagers who are keen to seek help independently can also see their GP or speak to their wellbeing team at school.”

For further information and help: Eating Disorders Victoria