Specialised eating disorder services inaccessible to many: Shelbi's story

Shelbi Carter with Peel Health Hub counsellor Louise Helfgott. Photo: Claire Sadler.
Shelbi Carter with Peel Health Hub counsellor Louise Helfgott. Photo: Claire Sadler.

Shelbi Carter struggled to acknowledge she needed support for an eating disorder. But once she did long wait times and inaccessible services made it difficult to get the help she desperately needed.

"I've always had an unhealthy relationship with food," Shelbi said.

"It's been something that has been an issue for me for a long time but it got a lot worse as of last year.

"It's scary because I know the effects of an eating disorder and I don't necessarily want to do that to myself but I can't stop."

Shelbi said it was often other's harmful words that exacerbated her bulimia nervosa.

"For other people their understanding of eating disorders is really low. People say things that are quite offensive but they have no idea it's harmful," she said.

"If someone says to me 'you look great - you've lost weight' it makes me continue my unhealthy eating habits.

"People have also told me 'you don't look like you have an eating disorder'.

"A lot of people only know about anorexia when they think of eating disorders but there are so many others like bulimia and binge eating where a lot of people are overweight."

Noticing she had lost a significant amount of weight in a short time it was Shelbi's doctor that first advised her to see a psychologist and a dietitian.

But other than the support she has received from Louise Helfgott, a Peel Health Hub counsellor with a PhD in the areas of anorexia and other eating disorders, Shelbi said it had been very difficult to access help.

"My other psychologist admitted she didn't have experience in eating disorders so I got paired with Louise," she said.

"Places like Peel Health Hub are a really good option if you need help but there is nowhere you can go that's specialised to treat people with an eating disorder.

"The only other options we have are places in Perth that cost thousands of dollars that no normal person could afford."

Extensive wait times had also made it hard to access support.

"The biggest problem is the waiting lists," Shelbi said.

"I haven't even seen the dietitian yet because I've been waiting for over six months to get an appointment.

"Even at the Peel Community Mental Health Service if I wanted to go on the waiting list it was going to be at least two years.

"I couldn't wait two years. By the time you were seen it doesn't help because the disordered eating is too entrenched."

For people aged over 16, there are very few eating disorder specialist services in WA and none outside Perth.

Money for a residential eating disorder centre in the Peel region has been promised by the federal government but there are no concrete plans yet as to where, when and how it will be constructed.

The state government doesn't appear to be in a hurry to make things happen but has loose plans to potentially incorporate it into the Peel Health Campus redevelopment.

With no specialised service in the Peel region and long wait times, Ms Helfgott said she was concerned how this was impacting people suffering from an eating disorder.

"Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate out of all the mental health issues. It's about 20 per cent," she said.

"With an eating disorder time is of the essence. It's really important to get in quickly and get the help you need before it becomes too entrenched.

"So with wait times up to two years, anything can happen in that time."