Eating disorders and early intervention in a time of COVID

Kris responds to the storm damage in victorian regional communities during the pandemic.
Kris responds to the storm damage in victorian regional communities during the pandemic.

The mental health impacts of COVID-19 have been extensive and tangible. The impacts on those with eating disorders are no exception.

National Mental Health Commission data shows a 25 to 50 per cent increase in the number of people receiving treatment for eating disorders in the public health system during the pandemic.

For people with eating disorders, the increased burden on public and private service providers has meant long wait times and sometimes severe health consequences. 

“We've seen an increase in new diagnoses, particularly among young people,” says Belinda Caldwell, CEO of Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV). “But we've also seen people who had recovered, relapsing.

“And we've seen more people being more unwell than usual. Partly that's because they're not getting into treatment in a timely way, so they're more unwell by the time they do.”

EDV is one organisation that has had to step up during this time. The organisation has nearly tripled in size over the past two years, largely to meet this surge in pandemic related demand.

Among a raft of new or expanded services, one stands out as being particularly pertinent. Carer Coaches was established for families of newly diagnosed young people who are on a waitlist for clinical treatment.

“We offer them coaching from carers who have lived experience of the treatment program they will be doing once they get accepted,” explains Belinda.

“We've had really good results,” she says. “Families are often well into the recovery journey before they even enter the treatment system.”


The long tail of the pandemic

COVID funding has seen EDV grow in other ways, notably by employing counsellors with lived experience of specific eating disorders and commencing disorder-specific support groups.

The funding may have been COVID specific, but the work is not. In particular, programs like Carer Coaches that focus on early intervention among young people will have ongoing relevance.

“We don't see demand slowing down at all,” says Belinda. “People can fall into an eating disorder relatively quickly, but it takes a lot longer to get back out of it.

“There will be a long tail on the end of this crisis. And we want to continue to be able to turn up for our community in this way.”

For EDV, the equation is simple: demand plus investment equals innovation and growth. That equation has been exemplified during the pandemic period, but shouldn’t be limited to it.

It enables organisations like EDV to meet the needs of more people in more effective ways.

“We’ve got to a stage now where we can scale up relatively efficiently,” says Caldwell. “We've got a critical mass of funding where with each increase, we can see more people for less money.

“We've always known we reach only about two or three per cent of the whole eating disorder affected community in Victoria,” says Caldwell. “We want that to be so much more.”


More about Belinda Caldwell and Eating Disorders Victoria

Originating in 1983, Eating Disorders Victoria is the largest Victorian not-for-profit organisation providing support services, information and guidance to people impacted by eating disorders.

EDV’s services are informed by the lived experience of people who have experienced eating disorders and those that have cared for them.

Belinda Caldwell has worked in health and health change management for more than 30 years. She joined EDV as CEO two years ago.

Prior to that she spent five years as Carer Consultant and Project Manager at the Victorian Centre of Excellence in Eating Disorders. She has lived experience as carer to a child with an eating disorder.


You can hear more from Belinda Caldwell during our upcoming webinar Learning from adversity: Bushfires, COVID and the lessons for mental health reform. Free registrations are now open