Hunter teen's high rates of body image problems drive demand for more eating disorder services

Not surprised: Jodie Sheraton, director of Myrtle Oaks Clinic, says they opened a second practice to address the demand for more specialised eating disorder and body image services in the Hunter. Picture: Simone De Peak
Not surprised: Jodie Sheraton, director of Myrtle Oaks Clinic, says they opened a second practice to address the demand for more specialised eating disorder and body image services in the Hunter. Picture: Simone De Peak

NEW figures showing that one-in-four Hunter teens are suffering with “significant” body image problems were alarming, but not surprising, the director of a specialised eating disorder clinic says.

“We are certainly witnessing these changes,” Myrtle Oak Clinic director Jodie Sheraton, an accredited practising dietitian, said.

“A lot of our clientele are in their mid-to-late teenage years. We are seeing so much pressure on young people around body image, and trying to look a certain way to fit in with their peers. And we are certainly seeing it with young males too.”

“Extensive” waiting times for public services within the Hunter had meant many people with eating disorders had been travelling to their Ourimbah clinic for treatment, Ms Sheraton said, prompting them to open a second practice closer to Newcastle.

“When we opened up on the Central Coast in 2015, we had quite a lot of patients travelling down because there were no other specialised, private treatment options in the Newcastle area,” Ms Sheraton said.

“Since we started doing consultations in Wallsend in July, we have been making connections with the public health services that are already available in the area.

“They tend to have extensive waiting lists, so they were really appreciative that – in the meantime – they could refer their clients to a local private clinic that they knew had experience in treating people with eating disorders.

“I have heard some of the services, such as outpatient or day programs, can be a six-to-12 month wait – it can be a few months, at least. And we do know that early intervention and early identification does help with a shorter duration of illness, and also a better chance for recovery.”

Ms Sheraton said research showing more than half of students had experienced a body image problem, but only 5 per cent had received help for it was alarming.

“We need to better promote and help teens get timely access to services that are trained to provide much-needed advice on overcoming or better managing body image concerns,” she said.

The Wallsend clinic will host an information session for teachers, counsellors and parents who may be witnessing concerning behaviours on April 9 from 6pm.

“They may have noticed someone not eating, and they are not quite sure how to approach a student, or approach their child,” Ms Sheraton said. “Often people are hesitant to say anything because they are concerned about making the situation worse, and they are not sure where to go to seek help or what resources are out there.”

Hunter New England Health eating disorders coordinator, senior dietitian Melissa Hart, said there was a range of acute hospital and community-based services to assist people with eating disorders in the region.

“This includes access to emergency services, mental health professionals, dietetic support and more specialised services based on each person’s needs,” she said.

“For example, our Adult Eating Disorder Day Program offers meal support to encourage regular and healthy eating, skills development to help manage this and a therapeutic group program.

“Community-based treatments plans are run in conjunction with the patient’s general practitioner. The Mental Health Line is also available for people who need specialist mental health assessment and support. This service operates 24 hours, seven days a week and the phone number for this line is 1800 011 511.”

Ms Hart said patients could be carefully triaged through hospital emergency departments.

“Any acute cases of patients with an eating disorder are assessed and treated either immediately or within 48 hours of presentation,” she said.

“Less urgent cases are treated in accordance with clinical need, which varies across the district and can mean a wait of weeks or months in some cases.”

Anyone needing support can call the Butterfly Foundation’s helpline on 1800 33 4673, or for urgent help, Lifeline 13 11 14.