Westmead Adolescent clinic leads eating disorders battle

Westmead Hospital Adolescent Ward social worker Heejin Kim, staff specialist Dr Michael Kohn, clinical nurse consultant Gail Anderson, paediatrician Dr Linette Gomez, staff specialist Prof Simon Clarke, medical officer Dr Mushira Mokhtar and clinical psychologist Dr Christine Wearne.

“Summer is here, it’s time to get in shape!” Do these marketing slogans make you feel good about yourself? If not, take on board these thoughts.

Modern culture is highly physique-centric to the point where everyone is pressured to become “better” versions of themselves. This slippery slope might lead to serious mental and physical complications.

Some young people are more likely to fall into the trap of eating disorders. Many of them carry this into their adult lives.

Eating disorder is a mental illness that exists in different kinds: anorexia, bulimia nervosa, binge eating and many more. One more disturbing fact: eating disorders have the highest mortality rate among all mental illnesses.

But there is a silver lining. It can be treated and full recovery is possible at every age.

Head of Westmead Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine clinic Dr Michael Kohn said 2020 had broken all records for families seeking help. Since the beginning of April, the clinic has received twice the number of patients struggling with eating disorders.

“We tend to focus on things we worry about the most. For many of us, it’s the physique,” Dr Kohn said.

“COVID-19 brought people’s anxiety to the next level, and we see direct evidence of it. According to reports of the Eating Disorder Research Society, it’s a worldwide problem.

Photo courtesy Getty Images.

Dr Kohn said it might be challenging for parents to notice the change in their teenage children, but there were a few things to remember. 

“Young people are quite secretive, but if you notice them separating themselves from family and avoiding eating meals together – this is one of the signs. Irritable mood and cold hands are also important signs,” he said.

“You know your kid the best. It can happen to any young person, but we’d like everyone to know that help is available.”

Westmead Adolescent and Young Adult Medicine clinic has been a leader in treating teenage eating disorders for 40 years. Proudly known for its holistic, evidence-based approach and strong multi-disciplinary team (MDT) of specialists, the department boasts the highest success rate of treatment.

The MDT meets three times a week and consists of consultants, junior doctors, nurse consultants, psychologists, social and administrative workers, a dietitian, registrar, and school teacher from the Department of education.

Adolescent clinic social worker Heejin Kim said COVID-19 did not interrupt teamwork and collaboration within the treating team. Since the beginning of the pandemic the team started using telehealth. 

“In our team everyone listens to each other. No decision is made without consulting each professional and everyone’s opinion is equally important,” Heejin said.

“Nurses spend the most time with our inpatients, making sure they finish all their meals. Their observations are extremely valuable for team’s decision making.

“Eating disorder treatment is long-term and it takes good teamwork to help one young person to make progress. It includes family and school. We provide education for parents and school teachers on meal supervision and other important aspects of care.”

Having a professional who speaks a patient’s native language and shares the same culture has created an incredible change to addressing eating disorders.

“In Western Sydney everybody’s fridge looks different!” Prof. Kohn said.

“Introducing multicultural social workers a few years ago helped us build trust and understanding with families, as well as adapt meal plans to their food culture. It reduced unnecessary re-admissions greatly.

“Since then, we’ve also introduced a halal menu for our inpatients.”

The clinic’s aim is to work with patients and their families until they’re `happy and heathy’.

 “Feeling down sometimes is okay. Make a list of your feel-good things and do at least one every day. I also find mindfulness sessions particularly helpful.

“Don’t go to Dr Google. Speak to our team and we will find a way to help.”

Visit the Department of Adolescent and Young Adults Medicine website to learn more about services available. For all inquiries, telephone 8890 6788 during office hours.