Almost 50,000 people in the Hunter New England and Central Coast Primary Health Network are estimated to have an eating disorder, but less than a quarter receive treatment or support, the Butterfly Foundation says.
The foundation highlighted the figures as it expressed disappointment that a $13 million, 12-bed eating disorders treatment centre at Charlestown had been delayed for a year.
It also revealed there had been a four-fold increase in prevention and education programs for eating disorders in schools and the community from 2019 to 2022.
Since COVID began, the foundation had experienced "a significant surge in demand to all services, including our national helpline for eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, support groups and treatment services," the foundation's interim CEO Anna Cullinane said.
Of those with an eating disorder in the region's health network, it is estimated that 31,000 are females and 17,600 are males.
Foundation research estimated that 23,100 of these people have binge eating disorder, 1300 have anorexia and 5500 have bulimia, while 18,700 were listed as having EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified].
They are among an estimated 1 million Australians living with an eating disorder.
The Charlestown treatment centre was to be the "first publicly-funded service of its kind in NSW".
When the former NSW government announced the project, it was planned to be completed by mid-2023.
A Hunter New England Health spokesperson said construction of the Charlestown centre was "now expected to be complete by mid-2024".
The project timeline was extended due to wet weather, additional land assessments and site remediation.
Early works at the Charlestown site started in February, with main works to begin in the "coming months".
Ms Cullinane said the delay to the Charlestown clinic was "disappointing".
"But as we know from opening Wandi Nerida, Australia's first and only residential treatment centre for eating disorders [in Queensland], setting up and running such a facility requires a great deal of planning."
Ms Cullinane says it is "important that the government takes the time to get it right".
"Existing eating disorder services will continue to be available," Ms Cullinane said.
"Early intervention is very important in limiting the duration and severity of an eating disorder, so seeking help early via care at home and in the community is still vital."
She said the foundation runs a national helpline and a referral database for clinicians in local areas.
"For acute residential treatment, NSW residents have been able to access Wandi Nerida in Queensland through NSW government funding."
Over the past 18 months, the government had provided almost $1 million for NSW patients to be treated at the centre, she said.
She added that it can be "particularly hard to access treatment and healthcare professionals with expertise in eating disorders in regional areas".
Ms Cullinane said it was "essential that eating disorder treatment and support services in regional areas are adequately funded, so that people outside metro areas can receive timely and accessible treatment".
She said residential treatment centres, such as the Charlestown project, are "an important part of treatment that hasn't previously been seen in Australia".
"We know from our experience of opening Wandi Nerida that these kinds of clinics - with evidence-based, person-centred, residential-style settings - provide a much-needed bridge between hospital admissions and intensive outpatient care."
But she said residential treatment centres were "just one part of the system of care for someone with an eating disorder".
"It is critical that community treatment and support services are available alongside residential options.
"We also need the government to invest further in prevention and education across Australia.
"Our recent Body Kind Youth Survey of 12- to 18-year-olds revealed more than 90 per cent of young people in Australia have some concern about their body image."
She said this exposed the need for more resources to "build and maintain positive body image, prevent body dissatisfaction and reduce appearance pressures - known risk factors for the development of eating disorders".
UNSW research recently showed there was a 76 per cent increase in emergency department visits for eating disorders at children's hospitals in Australia during the pandemic.
The research found this problem had remained higher than pre-pandemic levels.
Ms Cullinane said the pandemic "created the perfect storm for eating disorders to develop and thrive".
- Butterfly's National Helpline is 1800 33 4673.