Australia’s only dedicated support service for people with eating disorders is set to be axed next year, under a shake-up of online mental health services.
Mental health experts are devastated, saying the phone and web support run by the Butterfly Foundation has saved countless patients’ lives.
Christine Morgan, the Butterfly Foundation’s chief executive, said the helpline assisted more than 1,000 people each month, with patients receiving up to an hour of phone and web counselling.
“We’ve been told we only have another 12 months of certain funding for it,” she said.
“To be honest, it fills me with horror because at the moment, this is the only national dedicated service for people with eating disorders.”
The Butterfly Foundation is the country’s peak support organisation for people with conditions such as anorexia and bulimia.
The Federal Government is developing a new centralised online “gateway” as part of its shake-up of mental health services.
A letter from the Federal Department of Health, obtained by the ABC, says: “It will bring together and streamline access to existing evidence-based information, advice and digital mental health treatment and connect people to services through a centralised telephone and web portal.”
Experts say, while streamlining services may be worthwhile, it is crucial that specialised services are still available.
Ms Morgan said patients needed very specific services for eating disorders.
“Somebody suffering an eating disorder does not get the appropriate care and counselling if they ring in a general mental health line,” she said.
The ABC understands that Federal Government funding for the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, which develops treatment guidelines for eating disorders, was also going to be axed, but received a last-minute reprieve.
St Vincent’s Hospital psychiatrist Liz Scott said many of her patients regularly used the Butterfly Foundation’s support service.
“If this was something like cancer affecting young people, we wouldn’t be saying, ‘well let’s take away the phone support line’ or ‘let’s withdraw services’. There would be a major community outcry,” Dr Scott said.
She said eating disorders carried very high rates of mortality.
“One in 10 people who suffer from an eating disorder are dead within 10 years, and if you think about these disorders affecting young people, that’s a horrifying statistic of something that is potentially preventable,” she said.
Phone line ‘a safe place to turn to’
Kath Courts, 26, who is being treated for an eating disorder, said she had used Butterfly Foundation’s phone and web support to get through tough times.
“Calling the phone line was just so important to have that safe space to turn to, to tell someone how I was thinking and feeling and be believed and validated for that,” she said.
Ms Courts said friends with eating disorders had contacted other mental health lines and were told to “go for a walk” or “have an ice cream”.
“To be told to eat something pleasant, it’s like you have absolutely no idea what I’m going through, I really need help and I’m not getting it,” she said.
Ms Courts said had often struggled to find help when she needed it.
“I know for me, if I don’t have anyone to talk to my thoughts get a lot darker and it’s a lot more difficult to manage those urges,” she said.
She said many Australians with eating disorders found it difficult to get ongoing medical treatment.
Ms Courts is hoping the Federal Government will give assurances the support line will be saved.
Other mental health groups face uncertainty
A further 20 mental health groups are also facing an uncertain future, when it comes to their online services.
The groups include Lifeline and SANE Australia.
SANE Australia chief executive Jack Heath said his organisation was keen to be part of the Government’s digital gateway.
“We strongly welcome the Government’s efforts to utilise digital technology,” he said.
Lifeline said it was working with the Government to ensure it had input into the development of the new mental health portal.
A spokeswoman for the Federal Health Department said all government-funded digital mental health service providers, including Butterfly Foundation, were provided with funding for an additional 12 months.
“A Digital Mental Health Advisory Committee has been established to consult and co-design the detailed elements of the new gateway,” she said.
“This group will include representatives of the contracted services providers.”
This article first appeared on ‘ABC’ on 16 May 2016.