Do not suffer in silence if you have an eating disorder – compassionate care is out there

Around 190,000 people will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives but help and advice is available, writes Cormac Sheehan

In Ireland each year, close to 1,800 new cases of eating disorders are diagnosed.

It is difficult for those experiencing an eating disorder to find the right help and support.

Since 2008, the Eating Disorder Centre Cork (EDCC), has been providing one-to-one support for people directly impacted by eating disorders, and also reaching out to their parents and families.

The Department of General Practice, UCC, in conjunction with the HSE, conducted a service evaluation of the EDCC, and the findings are overwhelmingly positive.

So who uses the service? I suppose many of us imagine that those with eating disorders are in the younger age bracket, so people may be surprised to hear that the EDCC provides support to people right up to the age of 60.

Trish Shiel, the clinical manager at EDCC, says the statistics show that eating disorders in middle age are increasing. Low self-esteem can be a factor, and poor body image.

Since 2008, the Eating Disorder Centre Cork has provided one-to-one support for people directly impacted by eating disorders, and reaching out to parents and families

As co-author of the EDDC evaluation report, our research shows the centre provides support to people aged between 12-60. The clients are overwhelming female, almost nine in 10. One third of those attending are aged 15-20.

It’s hard to estimate the numbers experiencing an eating disorder, but about 190,000 people in Ireland will go through the experience at some point in their lives.

Currently, the EDCC has 80 clients, with the majority attending weekly or fortnightly. People travel from Kerry, Tipperary, Waterford, as well as Cork city and county.

Having an eating disorder affects people physically and mentally, but also impacts on their social, family, school, college and work lives and is a financial burden, but people can and do recover.

Ms Shiel urges people not to “suffer in silence and seek help and advice”.

The key findings of our report are that clients of EDCC encountered a number of ongoing challenges in recovering from their eating disorders.

These included — but were not limited to — uncertainty around diagnosis, comorbidities (more than one illness), financial burden, hospitalisation, underemployment, unemployment, loss of earnings, and absenteeism from work, college, or school.

During today’s launch of the report at the Western Gateway Building in UCC, one woman who attended the centre, will outline her personal story.

For her, the centre has been a place of specialised treatment and consistent support.

To have access to their services in Cork city has been a life-line to survival for her.

Ms Shiel says when they started the service in 2008, the aim was to do everything they could to the benefit of the client, and the findings of our evaluation show they are doing just that — with a 95% satisfaction rate from clients.

Although funded by the HSE, the EDCC has to operate a sliding scale payment, based on income, for one-to-one support.

The majority of people who attend the EDCC have a low income per year. Despite the cost of using the service, transport costs, travel, and time off work, the clients expressed gratitude for the person-centred care provided by the EDCC.

But there is a need for future research that will lead to improvements in diagnosis and integrated care, which in turn will improve early interventions and respond to comorbidities.

Grace Kelly, who co-authored the report, says that due to the health needs of the EDCC population, and in order to provide the best opportunity to intervene early and respond to comorbidities, an integrated care approach is needed.

The Eating Disorder Service, HSE Model of Care for Ireland (2018) is a welcome framework for adhering to this integration.

Respondents to our research described the EDCC as invaluable to their recovery, offering care and support, not just in terms of their eating disorder but helping them plan for the future.

One respondent said: “The service is wonderful, they helped me get my life back. It is a constant battle with an eating disorder, and I get a little stronger each session.”

The parent of a child with an eating disorder said: “I know I can bring concerns to the therapist and I can seek support from people who understand and are non-judgmental. They help me ask the right questions, and support my child who is vulnerable.”

I believe further research is needed on community health services like the EDCC.

UCC is ideally positioned to do this research, with expertise in health and social care.

We hope to do further research into the aetiology of eating disorders and associated social and cultural pressures that may lead to the development of an eating disorder.

Ms Kelly believes further research is needed to understand the challenges faced when recovering from an eating disorder, the impact of changes in food consumption, and the experiences in accessing health care for eating disorders.

The launch of the report today offers an opportunity to highlight the work of the EDCC, but more importantly it raises awareness about eating disorders nationally.

Dr Cormac Sheehan, research officer, Department of General Practice, UCC.

The launch of the EDCC evaluation report will take place at the Western Gateway Building, UCC, at 1pm today with Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Mental Health Minister Jim Daly.

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