New programme supports parents caring for children with eating disorders as number of cases rises

The programme equips participants with skills and knowledge to manage the recovery process of those with eating disorders. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Eating disorders among young people are on the rise in Singapore, with hospitals seeing a higher number of patients amid the pandemic.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH) said it had 50 to 70 new cases of patients aged 11 to 18 with eating disorders five years ago, but the number rose to more than 100 per year over the last two years.

A spokesman for Singapore General Hospital said it saw nearly 230 patients with eating disorders in 2021, up from 170 the year before.

Dr Courtney Davis, a senior staff physician at KKH, said better awareness about eating disorders is likely to have played a part in more cases coming to light, and the trend can be expected to continue in the future.

"We are not able to pinpoint the underlying cause and research is ongoing in this area. While the disruptions brought about by the pandemic have triggered a worsening of eating disorder symptoms in some patients, there were also patients whose condition improved as parents were able to spend more time at home to take care of them," she added.

Eating disorders include anorexia nervosa, which is characterised by an abnormally low body weight and an intense fear of gaining weight, and bulimia nervosa which involves binge eating, followed by purging.

Dr Davis said individuals with eating disorders have a distorted perception of their own weight and an extreme obsession with food and eating habits. They may become moody and irritable, secretive or ritualistic with food, and withdraw and isolate themselves from their families or social situations, she noted.

To help parents care for children who have been diagnosed with eating disorders, KKH has collaborated with non-profit organisation Caregivers Alliance Limited (CAL) on a new programme which equips participants with skills and knowledge to manage the recovery process.

The content was developed by CAL with the help of physicians, psychologists and specialist nurses from KKH's eating disorder team.

Through case studies, films and role plays, participants gain awareness about the different conditions. The sessions also include interactive discussions and insights from persons-in-recovery and caregivers who are invited as guests.

Parents are also encouraged to create a text group with other participants whom they can tap for support in the future.

CAL conducted its first run last year, with 15 caregivers graduating from the three-month programme in June. In total, 70 caregivers have been trained in three runs so far.

Counsellor Nandita Nalawala, who is programme and outreach manager at CAL, said children with eating disorders can present both physical symptoms like extreme fatigue, constipation or blood pressure issues as well as changes in behaviour, such as being withdrawn or avoiding meal times with the family.

She noted that treatments for those with eating disorders have to take a holistic approach, combining medication, psychotherapy and the support of caregivers and family members.

The initiative by CAL gives parents a safe space to validate some of their challenges and share their experiences with others, she added.

"Over time, the participants build a fraternity and recognise that they are not isolated. By hearing someone else's story which had a good ending, they also develop a sense of optimism about their own situation," she noted.

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