Did you know that, at present, there are no procedures implemented on the state or federal level to screen for eating disorders among adolescents?
The most recent data provided by the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) shows that in American high schools, 30% of girls and 16% of boys suffer from disordered eating, which includes bingeing, vomiting, fasting, abuse of laxatives and diet pills, and compulsive exercise.
It gets worse.
Females between the ages of 15-24 suffering from anorexia have a mortality rate twelve times higher than that of their peers, a statistic that translates into anorexia having the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Unfortunately, even though eating disorders are preventable and effective treatment exists, they are on the rise.
The good news is that groups like NEDA are working with state governments across the country to try and push back. Last year, Virginia became the first state in the country to study eating disorder prevalence within its borders. One of the reasons that happened was that the bill being sponsored by VA State Senator Toddy Puller got more attention due to the lobby efforts of NEDA and the volunteers who came to advocate for it.
Hundreds of bills get introduced each season for the General Assembly, so if members aren’t well informed on the specifics, they risk getting overlooked. Going in person and sharing how eating disorders have personally affected us, it turns out, can be a lot more salient than just throwing around a bunch of statistics. Maybe the best example is Delegate Richard “Dickie” Bell, whom we met with last year. After sharing our own stories, Bell recalled a student he had known when he worked in public education who was struggling with an eating disorder. He saw the way it disrupted her family life and studies, and did his best to keep up with her and not let her slip through the cracks. Well, he ended up advocating for the Joint Commission study that Puller introduced, and it passed unanimously.
This year, we were invited to sit in on the convened House of Delegates and were recognized before the House by Bell himself. How’s that for progress?
The study from the Joint Commission came with a few recommendations, one of which is to develop and implement an eating disorder screening system for public schools. We already screen for vision and hearing problems, scoliosis, among other things. The Departments of Education and Health are working together, along with some guidance and input from NEDA, to develop an eating disorder screening system for adolescents, which will hopefully be finished this summer and ready for consideration in 2013.
This is even more important when you consider the anti-obesity initiatives going on around the US right now. Many of the programs overlook the potential for eating disorders all together (because you can have an eating disorder and be overweight!) and often resort to body shaming and public bullying. Some counties have implemented mandatory Body Mass Index (BMI) reporting in schools, and sometimes this information is broadcast in front of an entire class. One advocate in attendance shared first-hand experience with how these programs can be detrimental: their daughter who was struggling with anorexia was actually stood up in front of the class to be praised for her low BMI and shown as an example to the other students! That leads us to the other side of the screenings: they would result in doctors and public health workers being more educated about eating disorders so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen in Virginia.
That means we need everyone we can get to let the General Assembly know how important this is. If you can’t participate in a lobby event, there are still effective ways to communicate with the offices of your representatives. Emails, faxes, phone calls… they actually do pay attention to these things! We know that prevention and early intervention are the most effective methods for achieving long-term recovery and health. To stay up to date on action alerts, go here and follow where it says ‘Join the Star Program’. Once the bill gets introduced, we’ll need people advocating for it in every way possible!
Here are some pictures from the day: