A DIRE shortage of eating disorder beds in public hospitals means severely unwell men and women in NSW are being told they must lose more weight before they can be admitted for treatment.
Advocates say there are only two adult beds available where patients from around the state can receive specialised treatment for eating disorders.
The head of the eating disorder charity The Butterfly Foundation says the situation is "Dickensian" and is putting lives at risk.
One young woman has started a social media campaign begging for more to be done after she was told that despite being critically unwell she would have to wait until next year for a hospital bed.
Ella Graham, 23, has had an eating disorder since she was 12. She relapsed in March after a man who had attacked her was released from prison.
She has been too unwell to work since then and has been in and out of emergency.
"They say, 'look, you're not in heart failure yet so we are not going to admit you'," she said.
The chief executive of The Butterfly Foundation, Christine Morgan, said the situation was "beyond terrible" .
"To have conditions like this in 2012, it is Dickensian. It is beyond bad."
She said nearly one in 10 Australians have an eating disorder, with rates higher among women.
"Not all of them will require hospital care but it is beyond belief that there are only two public beds for all of NSW," she said.
The foundation's help hotline had recently experienced a dramatic growth in contact, she said.
In 2011, there was an average of 108 calls or emails each month, while so far this year there has been an average of nearly 250.
A clinical psychologist, Olivia Patrick, said the lack of beds was putting patients' lives at risk.
"People can die and they do die; the mortality rate is 20 per cent."
Ms Graham said her website, Fed Up NSW Health, received nearly 4000 hits, and she had received support through Facebook and Twitter. Others have also come forward with their problems getting treatment.
Tara Peak recently regained a healthy body weight but this significant victory will also mean that she is no longer eligible for public outpatient treatment.
At her sickest, Ms Peak sought hospital treatment - after repeated fainting, irregular heart beat and seizures - and was told her weight was not yet low enough for urgent admission.
On one occasion, after being taken unconscious to hospital, an ambulance officer made her wave her hands above her head so that her heart rate would go above 40 beats per minute and she could be sent home without seeing a doctor. "It's basically not until you get to the point that you are about to die … that someone says 'all right, we are going to do something about it'," she said. "Someone shouldn't be about to die to get treatment."
The Minister for Mental Health, Kevin Humphries, said eating disorders were less common than other mental illnesses and needed highly specialised care.
He said the government was funding specialists through the Centre for Eating and Dieting Disorders to improve treatment and support, train clinicians, and provide outreach support to other sites, as well as funding the development of online training.
The Butterfly Foundation support service: 1800 334 673