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New technology promises to help treat a surge in the number of Australians suffering with an eating disorder.

More than one million Australians have an eating disorder yet less than one in four are receiving treatment – a situation which threatens to become worse as cases continue to surge.

Eating disorders increased by 15% during the COVID-19 pandemic, as people struggled through long lockdowns, according to the Butterfly Foundation, a national charity that supports Australians impacted by eating disorders and body image issues.

“Mental health funding is not keeping up with the huge upsurge in anxiety, particularly among young people coming out of COVID,” says Marlo Newton, Senior Manager Major Gifts at The Alfred Foundation. “It's an absolute epidemic of its own.”

Eating disorders are complex mental illnesses that often require a range of different treatments across fields such as psychology, psychiatry, dietetics, nutrition, general medicine, and family therapy.

The demands are so heavy, it prompted the Butterfly Foundation to launch a trial of a conversational chatbot called KIT in 2020, which was available through their website and Facebook Messenger.

“While you or I might have some hesitation in interacting with a chatbot about something we're going through emotionally, Gen Z and the kids following them are actually often more comfortable online and texting,” Marlo says.

While the chatbot wasn’t intended to replace human-to-human interactions, it provides a new and extra avenue of support, reaching about 20,000 people in its first year. It provided general information and resources about body image issues and eating disorders, evidence-based strategies such as cognitive behavioural therapy skills, and taught ways to deal with social media more positively.

The team, which was led by Associate Professor Gemma Sharp, a clinical psychologist in the Body Image Research Group at the Monash Alfred Psychiatry Research Centre (MAPrc), is now seeking funding to help researchers who are literate in both AI technology and mental health care.

An estimated $20,000 per year for three years would enable a PhD student to receive specialist AI training.

“They will end up with the synthesized knowledge of the medical condition and AI, which will lead to an improvement in the chatbot,” Marlo says.

The Monash University-based PhD candidate will be based at the Alfred Mental and Addiction Health (AMAH) State-wide Women’s Mental Health Centre (SWMHC) and also receive AI training at the CSIRO through a CSIRO Data 61 grant.

The student will assist with the co-design and evaluation of innovative and personalised conversational AI tools to support SWMHC patients through their entire treatment from pre-admission, during in-patient stay, transitioning to residential care and outpatient services.

The Alfred Foundation is currently seeking support to fund a PhD candidate to receive specialist AI training at CSIRO.
Please contact Marlo Newton, Senior Manager, Gifts at
M.Newton@alfred.org.au