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Bulimia's prime-time treatment

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Bulimia's prime time treatment

GreenGuide, The Age

27th July, 2006

Mattie Hunter (Indiana Evans) confronts the serious problem of bulimia in Home and Away.

Reality hits hard when Home and Away tries a story about eating disorders, writes Bridget McManus.

WHILE Mattie Hunter, the baby-faced bombshell of Summer Bay, stuffed her mouth with cakes and then made herself vomit on an episode of Home and Away last week, a teenage viewer sobbed in her mother's arms and fought an overwhelming urge to binge and purge. The recovering bulimic, whose mother later called the Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria's helpline, was not alone in her distress that evening. The foundation was inundated with calls from young people who had seen the show.

Some had identified with Mattie (played by Indiana Evans) and had made the first step to recovery by seeking help. Others had found the scene so distressing that they needed immediate support to stop themselves from doing the same.

The foundation's executive officer Frances Saunders has some concerns about bulimia being dealt with on a teen soap. "Particularly with bulimia, there's a stage where (bingeing and purging) seems like an easy way to resolve issues. So someone who might be at risk might actually try it if you show it," she says.

"The nature of eating disorders is such that sufferers are highly competitive. So, for example, if you show someone with anorexia or you talk about what they're eating or their (kilojoule) intake, people at risk will say, 'I'm having more than that, I'd better cut down'. I spoke to one carer who said that (seeing the Home and Away episode) had been quite a step back, that the sufferer was saying they felt that they wanted to go and do the behaviour in response."

Those working with young women with eating disorders have mixed feelings about Mattie's depiction. While pleased the issue is getting an airing and sparking discussion amongst an at-risk group (the show's viewers are predominantly young women), they worry the program will tie up the storyline in too simplistic a manner.

No one from Channel Seven or Home and Away would speak to Green Guide about what, if any, advice was taken in writing the bulimia storyline or how long it would continue.

Sanders says the majority of the calls her helpline received as a result of the program, which screens weeknights at 7pm, were from people in their late teens to mid-20s. (The number of calls the helpline received as a direct result of the show was not recorded, Sanders says. But there has been a big leap since Mattie started suffering bulimia.)

The experts agree that presenting a case of bulimia in a shock-tactic fashion is more likely to do harm than good.

"It's a bit like putting alcohol in front of someone with a drinking problem," says Claire Vickery, chief executive of the Butterfly Foundation, an independent eating disorder advocacy group that funds treatment programs. "It's a really negative way of communicating the message."

Michael Carr-Gregg, founding director of the National Coalition Against Bullying, adviser on adolescent issues to Neighbours, and "agony uncle" for Girlfriend magazine, says: "With any depiction of eating disorders, we need to be extremely careful not to normalise, sanitise or glamorise the issue. It would be wonderful if we could use television not to exploit anxieties of adolescents, but to reassure them that there is hope. I was very concerned about Four Corners, which recently showed a documentary about a young boy in Ultimo who killed himself in year 12. There is overwhelming evidence that graphically depicting such actions leads to suicide attempts, or even suicide."

According to the Eating Disorders Foundation, about 11 per cent of the Australian teenage population suffers from eating disorders. Most are female, although the illness is prevalent in boys. It is the most fatal of psychiatric illnesses, and about 5 per cent of sufferers will die. For those who seek help, the recovery rate is about 85 per cent.

Rick Kausman, Australian Medical Association spokesman on healthy eating, dieting and weight issues, addressed a group of year 9 and 10 students from 16 schools in Geelong last week. The bulimia story in Home and Away was raised by students.

"The whole upside to this is, we've got to get it out to the community that this is a health issue that's not unusual, it's not isolated," Kausman says. "It's increasingly common and the more we can make it OK to talk about it, the more of a chance we're going to be able to have to help people make change."

Sanders agrees that exposure of the disorder will benefit some.

"I think it's good that (Home and Away) is actually addressing and raising the issue, because although it may distress people, you've also got those people who think, 'I've got that, maybe I should go and get some help'. That's why the resolution of (Mattie's problem) is going to be so important."

It is unreasonable to expect the Mattie Hunter bulimia plotline to stretch over eight to 10 years (the usual length of time it takes sufferers to confront their problem and seek help), but if the depiction of the issue is to be as realistic as it has so far, Mattie will have food consequences for the rest of her fictitious life. Rather than mark her as a former bulimic, Sanders says such a character development would make Mattie normal.

"(Overcoming bulimia) is not about weight or food, it's about feeling better about yourself," she says. "I think we all have a part of ourselves that worries about our own body image."

Helpful phone numbers: Eating Disorders Foundation of Victoria, 9885 0318 or 1300 550 236


<a href="http://eatingdisorders.org.au/">http://eatingdisorders.org.au




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I think its quite a good storyline. It's good to cover aspects like this, I really do think it could help sufferers seek help, and also help others to recognise the typical sorts of signs. Looking back, the Jade 2001 bullemia storyline was far more 'graphic' than anything we've seen in this one so far.

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The writer of the article is agreeing with many of us. This is a very important storyline but it is vital that they treat Mattie's recovery properly. It's a very long term,difficult process which can't be just hurried through.

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Yeah, i think in order for it to continue to be dealt with as good as it has so far the recovery needs to be realistic,not just get help and be over it in a week.That will spoil what's been a really good story.I think that's what they're saying.

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^ Totally agree with you spunkyl I am loving this storyline because I really do think it is getting out to people but if they make Mattie all better with a few pep tallks its not going to be realistic. I hope they continue the story and show that things in life are hard to overcome and arent made better with a few hugs and kisses and everything is all better again in a matter of a week.

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Yeah, i think in order for it to continue to be dealt with as good as it has so far the recovery needs to be realistic,not just get help and be over it in a week.That will spoil what's been a really good story.I think that's what they're saying.

I agree with everything you said!!

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