EDITORIAL: When thin is far from healthy

Children as young as eight battling anorexia

A NEW day program at James Fletcher House for adults seeking treatment for eating disorders is a welcome addition to the Hunter Region’s specialist health services.

Designed to treat people without resorting to hospital admission – while catering for those at ‘‘high risk’’ having finished hospital treatment – the James Fletcher program will cater for eight people at a time over a 12-week course.

Against this, credible estimates have as many as 8000 people living with eating disorders in the Hunter, with as many as 1000 of that number being young people aged between 10 and 14.

As Hunter New England Health eating disorder co-ordinator Melissa Hart acknowledges, ‘‘family therapy’’ is still the key treatment for children with clinically significant eating disorders.

The two most significant of these conditions are anorexia nervosa – where sufferers become dangerously under-weight – and bulimia nervosa, or binge eating followed by purging.

The term anorexia was coined in the 1870s by Sir William Gull, a physician to Queen Victoria, but it has taken until the modern era to affect people in the numbers it does today.

Fletcher resident Amber Walter, who has opened up about her battles to encourage others, describes anorexia as a ‘‘sneaky, clever illness’’ that is ‘‘incredibly difficult to treat’’.

Its complexity means it is as much a reflection of our modern society as a condition affecting people as individuals.

Anorexia was originally found mostly among people whose pursuits required, or resulted in, a thin physique: high-level athletics, dancing and modelling are the three obvious examples.

But it long ago left those small cliques, and is now firmly established in the mainstream population, although it remains far more prevalent among girls and women than among boys and men.

For girls and young women especially, the importance that society places on looks – and its equation of being thin with being healthy – results in enormous pressure to conform to popular norms of appearance.

And now, on top of the countless magazines and their impossibly air-brushed cover models, comes the viral world of social media, with a whole new set of sites and images to heighten the impact on vulnerable teenage girls.

While some youngsters will grow out of an obsession with being thin, others will not, and the sad reality is that anorexia, at its worst, can be a killer.

The complex nature of the condition calls for proper funding of a range of treatments for what is clearly a significant public health issue. Parents concerned about their children should seek help and advice. And all of us should heed Ms Walter’s words highlighting the importance of ‘‘a community of acceptance and understanding’’.

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