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Criticism as Dept of Health spends €230k sponsoring Operation Transformation series

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns said services for people with eating disorders are virtually non-existent due to successive government failures.

Image: RTÉ/Facebook

THE DEPARTMENT OF Health has spent €230,000 this year to sponsor the current season of RTÉ’s Operation Transformation.

For the second year in a row, the weight loss and lifestyle series is sponsored by Healthy Ireland – a government initiative aiming “to improve the health and wellbeing of people living in Ireland”.

Over €350,000 was spent between advertisements and sponsorship of the show last year, with a Department spokesperson confirming €230,000 was spent on Healthy Ireland’s sponsorship this year.

“Healthy Ireland sponsored Operation Transformation in 2021 as part of the Government “Keep Well” resilience campaign. Whilst the sponsorship does not confer editorial control it does allow Healthy Ireland to work with the producers and recommend or weave in themes and messages on health topics, which are not confined to healthy eating and physical activity,” a spokesperson for the Department said.

The programme, which returned to screens earlier this week, has come under scrutiny recently over what critics say is its primary focus on weekly weight loss and the perceived negative mental health impacts that that focus may have on some viewers.

The Eating Disorder Association of Ireland, Bodywhys, earlier criticised the series for what it says was the considerable emphasis on dieting, body weight and shape and how each is measured, collectively counted and presented.

Bodywhys contacted Operation Transformation producers requesting that they consider “a more inclusive approach, signpost to support services and add disclaimers around the content” in an effort to avoid creating “a community sanctioned dieting culture that research shows does little to achieve long-lasting weight loss or health promotion”.

RTÉ said the TV series has evolved considerably over the years and now encompasses a more holistic approach to adopting and maintaining a healthy lifestyle as well as losing weight.

‘Virtually non-existent’ services

The controversy this week has prompted many to further question the government’s commitment to tackling the issue of eating disorders in Ireland.

In 2020, the entire amount of the development funding for eating disorder services was used to cover other areas of mental health provision. In the same year, hospital admissions for young people with eating disorders rose by 66% and 32% amongst adults when compared with 2019 figures.

Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns told TheJournal that it is difficult to stand over a decision to spend €230,000 on advertisements for Operation Transformation while ringfenced funding of €4 million for the development of eating disorder services went unspent between 2018 and 2020.

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“To say successive governments have utterly failed, when it comes to providing services for people with eating disorders, is an understatement,” said Deputy Cairns.

Services are not just threadbare; they are virtually non-existent. There are just three public inpatient beds for treatment in the entire country. This means the only way to access specialist treatment for most is as a private patient.

“This is not good enough. Treatment for eating disorders should be based on need, not the ability to pay.” 

The Department of Health said that the enhancement of specialist services for eating disorders, including improved access and shorter waiting lists, is a key priority for it and Minister for Mental Health and Older People Mary Butler.

“In 2021, Minister Butler secured the balance of €3.94 million, which enabled further investment in specialist posts throughout the year,” a department spokesperson said.

“An additional €1.15 million in funding was secured by Minister Butler for the programme in 2022. This additional funding will enable further investment in specialist posts throughout this year, enabling the development of new specialist eating disorder teams.”

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