More youngsters diagnosed with eating disorders

Twenty-year-old Laura Patricia Zhuang was once obsessed with losing weight. With support from family and friends, the 1.66m-tall former anorexia patient triumphed over her eating disorder and now weighs a healthy 58kg.
Twenty-year-old Laura Patricia Zhuang was once obsessed with losing weight. With support from family and friends, the 1.66m-tall former anorexia patient triumphed over her eating disorder and now weighs a healthy 58kg.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

At SGH, a third of 95 teens treated last year for anorexia or bulimia had to be hospitalised

More teenagers, some as young as 13, are being treated at public hospitals here for eating disorders.

Figures from the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) show that 95 youngsters aged 13 to 19 suffered from anorexia or bulimia last year, up from 65 in 2011 and 75 the year before.

"About a third of these cases needed hospitalisation," said Dr Lee Huei Yen, director of the eating disorders programme at SGH.

The number of these young patients with eating disorders outpaces the number of adult patients, which also went up from 40 in 2008 to 70 last year.

SGH said it has already seen close to 50 teenage patients as of April this year.

The number of youngsters diagnosed with eating disorders at KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) over the past three years has also increased - by about a third.

The average age of these patients at KKH from 2007 to last year: just under 14.

At the National University Hospital, doctors have observed a 20 per cent increase in cases involving young patients in each of the last three years.

"Based on estimation - 70 per cent of them are brought by parents," said Dr Rajeev Ramachandran, a consultant at the hospital's division of general ambulatory paediatrics and adolescent medicine.

The remaining 30 per cent are picked up by schools - mainly physical education teachers - or are diagnosed when they experience fainting spells or hair loss.

Most of SGH's younger patients are girls, with only five boys treated for eating disorders each year from 2010. Dr Lee from SGH attributes the surge in such cases to media portrayals of thin ideals.

Dr Lee Ee Lian, a senior consultant psychiatrist from Promises, a mental health clinic, says however, that primary school children here are increasingly susceptible to eating disorders due to the stress from schoolwork.

She says it can affect anyone. "There is no divide between socio-economic status, elite versus neighbourhood schools."

Doctors in private practice say the numbers seen in public hospitals may just be the tip of the iceberg.

"Patients with other eating disorders like binge-eating-disorder may not seek help at all... many cases surface only when the youth is in a serious stage," said Dr Lim Boon Leng of Dr BL Lim Centre For Psychological Wellness at Gleneagles Hospital.

The eating disorder mortality rate worldwide ranges between 5 and 20 per cent, said Dr Lee Ee Lian, who started the eating disorders programme at SGH a decade ago.

And the rate in Singapore is equally sobering. "We lose about a patient a year anecdotally, and they've always been young people," she added.

There are, however, many youngsters like Laura Patricia Zhuang, who overcome the problem.

As an obese teenager, she was obsessed with losing weight. Standing at 1.66m-tall, the former anorexia patient lost 40kg in 18 months and at her skinniest, weighed a wispy 42kg.

But with the help of her family and friends, the 20-year-old managed to triumph over the eating disorder and now weighs a healthy 58kg. She said: "Now I realise that being beautiful is about feeling healthy, happy and positive."

rmytan@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Audrey Tan