the butterfly report: an insight into the true impact of eating disorders in australia
The Butterfly Report is the first report to look closely into the economic and social impact of eating disorders (ED) in Australia. Using the available studies that have been conducted, as well as their own consultation survey for those with a lived experience, they were able to give, for the first time, an insight into the impact that these disorders have Australia-wide.
I thought I was quite well-read in this field, but there were a few things in the report that surprised me.
One of these was the estimated number of people suffering from eating disorders in Australia. Anorexia Nervosa, despite having the most media coverage, is the lowest at 25,753 sufferers. Next is Bulimia Nervosa (BN) at 107,913. While these are high statistics in themselves, current estimates suggest that there are 351,485 people in Australia suffering from Eating Disorders Not Otherwise Specified’ (EDNOS), and 428,833 people with Binge Eating Disorder (BED).
All up, the estimated number of people in Australia with eating disorders is 913,000, which is a very big step up from the estimated 23,464 by the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare in 2003. This estimation was based on a survey conducted in the mid-1990s of a relatively small sample of Swiss schoolgirls.
Though this was all covered within the introduction, it was a vital part of the report. While hospitalisations for AN are dropping, this preoccupation with weight and food, and the guilt that comes with the two, are leading to more cases of BED and EDNOS which in themselves have incredibly detrimental health issues attached.
Another important finding of the report was the conservative estimate of the socioeconomic cost of eating disorders in 2012: $69.7 billion. One thing that leads to these incredibly high numbers is the cost of medical treatment. However with BED starting to get recognition, the health impacts of obesity (a symptom of the disorder) will fall under the classification and really demonstrate the cost and lasting financial impact of eating disorders over coming years.
Premature death is another factor; however the report found that it was incredibly difficult to work out the death rate with current statistics. The only research that has been done on this has focused on AN, and this in itself may not have included suicides of those with AN who had not yet been diagnosed. Even then, the number of annual deaths for eating disorders was higher than the 2011 Australian road death toll.
The main findings in this section of the report were that it would save the government money over the long run to focus on early intervention, due to the strain on the health care system in regards to the physical and psychological symptoms of eating disorders, as well as the loss of tax money due to the inability to work and premature death. This was already quite obvious, but it is nice to see it in writing, and it make the government sit up and take notice.
What I found the most effective, and what really showed the impact of eating disorders, were the consultation surveys given to those with eating disorders and their family members. The personal stories gave a human side to the statistics, and really demonstrated the social impact of eating disorders. Many of the people interviewed who were suffering from an ED were unable to work due to it, and had lost most if not all of their social connections.
But what was really brought home in the personal studies was the complete inadequacy of the current system in treating these disorders. There are very few outpatient and inpatient facilities available in Australia (in fact, many of the parents interviewed had to send their sick child to America to access the programs there) that don’t simply focus on weight gain, rather than the psychological side of the disorder.
It also came out that many of the people with ED felt that their medical professionals did not have adequate knowledge about the disorder. In my own case, the first time my parents dragged me to the doctor they were told that there was nothing wrong with me because I had high cholesterol. We did not find out until months later that high cholesterol is a common symptom of starvation.
But with these rising statistics comes more awareness about the huge impact that eating disorders are having on Australia, which will hopefully lead to more awareness about the disorders themselves. As the report concluded, we need to focus on education, better services, and early intervention, to pave the way towards a healthier and happier Australia.