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The financial impact of anorexia care

Mother hugging sad daughter

Carers for someone with eating disorder anorexia nervosa are more likely to not just to be under enormous emotional strain but also significant financial strain, according to a small NZ study.

Anorexia is a dangerous psychiatric condition involving an extreme fear of weight gain and causes great suffering and risk of death for people who have it. The new University of Otago research shows the condition also impacts the earning ability of those who care for sufferers of the disorder, by an average of a 27 per cent annual income reduction.

Anorexia care is a full-time job

Of 137 carers participating in the study, around 72 per cent were caring for someone with anorexia.

And of that 72 per cent, nearly a quarter reported they were unable to work or study at all due their caring work, lead author Shistata Dhakal says.

Around three quarters reported their productivity was reduced by about 50 per cent of what it was prior to caring for their family member.

As with other caring work, the care of anorexia sufferers disproportionately falls to women (95 per cent in this study).

The cost of treatment

While the most common treatments received by the sufferers were publicly funded, private treatment was accessed by almost one third of sufferers, a University of Otago press release says.

About half of this group spent more than $10,000 on private treatment costs. Five travelled overseas for additional treatment which had a considerably higher cost. One in ten of those carers involved in the study had to access finance of $10,000 or more for costs incurred.

Impacts on carers rarely examined

Study supervisor and psychology associate professor Jenny Jordan says research to date has ‘rightly’ focussed on the person with the disorder, but this study is unusual in that it looks at the impacts of anorexia on carers.

“These preliminary analyses indicate the financial costs for those caring for someone with an eating disorder are variable, but very substantial for some”, Dr Jordan says.

On average, carers needed to take 61 days a year off and sick leave days for a third of carers averaged 46.6 days annually.

“These financial impacts are in addition to the other psychosocial impacts on carers, not yet reported from this study. With little research conducted in this area and most existing research focussing on the costs of anorexia, more research is needed on other eating disorders such as bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and ARFID (Avoidant Restrictive Food Intake Disorder), which will have a different pattern of impacts for those affected and their families.”

What’s involved in caring for an anorexia sufferer?

For young sufferers of anorexia, the most effective treatment is a family-based treatment approach which involves heavy supervision of every meal by family members or other carers.

The only way to recover from anorexia is through reaching a healthy weight and sufferers need intensive support to gain the weight necessary, as eating causes them extreme anxiety.

Study limitations

The study was small and more investigation is needed, but it highlights a neglected area of research into the impacts of eating disorders on carers.

If you or someone you know might be suffering from an eating disorder, reach out to your GP or local eating disorder service. The faster you access treatment, the higher the chances of recovery.

Useful links

Australia: Eating Disorder Help
UK: Beat Eating Disorders

For more on eating disorders you might be interested in: Harmful dieting on the rise in teens, Exploring new treatments for eating disorders , Living through COVID-19 with an eating disorder or The long run: A path to understanding bulimia nervosa


First published: Feb 2021

Article sources and references