News National Madonna King: Eating disorders are a sinister health challenge we need to talk about

Madonna King: Eating disorders are a sinister health challenge we need to talk about

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It’s Jaimi Kenny’s eyes that hid the ugly truth behind the disease being blamed for her for death, at just 33.

Sea-blue, like those of her mother, Lisa Curry, they danced with the promise of tomorrow. And the mirror-image of her dad Grant Kenny, Jaimi always seemed to stare out from photos with her famous parents, brimming with joy, and just a touch of mischief.

But eating disorders don’t discriminate and the last six months is a sickening reminder, for all of us, of the mental health challenges being faced by so many in our community.

One million Australians live with an eating disorder, but teen girls are a high-risk cohort. The rate of children self-harming – where they will cut or burn or scratch themselves – has taken a mighty upswing this year.

And the level of school avoidance, where a child simply refuses to attend school, jumped markedly after the first lockdown.

Recently, while researching a book, I’ve seen first hand just how much of a grip those issues have on some of our tween and teen girls; clouding their days and stealing their futures.

And it doesn’t matter if they live in rural or regional Australia or its big cities, go to private or public, coed or single-sex schools. Age isn’t a decider either, with girls as young as six hating their body shapes and embarking on diets.

lisa curry jaimi kenny
Lisa Curry (right) and daughter Jaimi Kenny in a photo posted by the former Olympian to Instagram. Photo: Instagram/Lisa Curry

Tina is just one example. A sports teacher recently spotted several cuts to her upper thigh as she steadied herself on the blocks awaiting the starter’s gun at a school swimming race.

The teacher alerted his school leaders, who contacted her parents.

Devastated, they had no idea their seemingly-happy 12-year-old was self-harming, regularly, with her father’s razor blades.

Girls like Tina exist everywhere but claims that self-harm is taking over from eating disorders as the 2020 mental health challenge is rot.

Eating disorders remain a monster for many children.

Ask educators, or psychologists or medicos, and they will tell you how the eating disorder scourge is found in the untouched lunches of teens and others, daily.

They’ll also tell you that you can’t always tell – like Tina’s self-harm – whether someone has an eating disorder. And that boys can struggle with it as much as their female friends.

“Eating disorders are not a diet gone wrong or a cry for attention,’’ Kids Helpline warns.

“Sometimes eating disorders develop as a way for someone to feel in control of emotions or something that is happening in their life.’’

A child self-harms for a variety of reasons too. Sometimes it’s because they want to feel connected to something, or are desperate to feel relief, or to escape their feelings, or even to punish themselves. Sometimes they simply want us to know they need help.

More than one million Australians battle eating disorders. Photo: Getty

We’ve talked about rising anxiety levels in our teens for years, but it really is at crisis point. And if it is not enveloping your teen daughters, it certainly is colouring the lives of some of her friends.

Schools understand this and wrap resources as much as they can around those with a vulnerability.

That’s just something else that’s been made harder this year, during the lockdown, and remains a massive challenge in Victoria, where educators and teen psychologists worry about the long-term impact of home-schooling on our children.

But even in other states, the impact has already been proved to be devastating for some.

When time-up was called on staying at home, and schools reopened their gates, some teens (and especially girls) just couldn’t front class.

They couldn’t walk into the school grounds. They simply refused. Some have not returned for one day, in the past term. School refusal is just another challenge now being taken up by our schools.

We talk about the role our schools play in our children’s academic journey.

But it’s time we also valued – and resourced – the role they play in spotting and dealing with those sinister mental health challenges that have become so much bigger with COVID.

Jaimi Kenny is proof that, at any age, a perfect smile and dancing eyes can disguise a secret heartache.

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