Eating Disorders as a Public Health Issue

The Center for Disease Control defines public health as “the science of protecting and improving the health of populations (CDC).” Once an issue is declared a public health issue, the CDC is able to launch and fund education, legislation, and research efforts surrounding that particular issue. These efforts are currently integral in the field of eating disorders. Students do not have any formal education about eating disorders until their senior year of high school, even though eating disorders often onset in early adolescence, and the education is often reflective of the societal view that eating disorders are a disease for thin, young, white women. Even in graduate and doctoral level public health programs, education on eating disorders is limited to an average of 40 minutes. That is not an adequate amount of time to provide a comprehensive education about risk factors and how to best treat varying populations, and often leads to limited research funding for eating disorder studies.

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“Another prevalent issue is limited access to treatment due to denial of insurance coverage, cultural stigma surrounding seeking treatment, or simply not realizing that you have an eating disorder.”

Despite all this, the system hesitates to recognize eating disorders as a public health issue because the organization believes that it is a niche problem that only affects thin, young, white women and that is definitely not the case. Eating disorders do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, age, size, or sexual orientation and can have serious health consequences if left untreated. In fact, eating disorders have the second highest mortality rate of all mental illnesses, yet only a small percentage of sufferers receive treatment. By age 20, it is estimated that 13.2% of girls and 2.9% of boys will have suffered from a DSM-5 classified eating disorder, and this does not even factor in sub-clinical cases (Stice, Shaw, Jaconis; Allen, Byrne, Oddy, Crosby).

“Eating disorders are considered biopsychosocial illnesses, meaning they are caused by a combination of genetic factors, personal psychology, and environmental triggers. This is important because although environmental triggers are abound in our image-obsessed and perfection-driven society, they are not the only culprit.”

Once the system recognizes eating disorders as a public health issue, the organization can work towards banning harmful diet pills and senna-containing laxative teas at the federal level, mandating eating disorder education starting in eighth grade and going up to the doctorate level, emphasizing on providing adequate eating disorder training for general practitioners, eliminating mentions of weight in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for anorexia, and ensuring that insurance companies handle eating disorder cases just as they would physical illnesses.

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“Eating disorders are a public health issue and it is my hope that the system can recognize that and affect change at the federal level.”


 ABOUT THE AUTHOR: AVA SILVERMAN

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Ava Silverman is a teen volunteer and Outreach Specialist for the NJ Chapter of Project HEAL. She enjoys musical theatre and dance and hopes to become a clinical psychologist specializing in treating eating disorders.

References

Allen, K., Byme, S., Oddy, W., & Crosby, R. (2013) “DSM-IV-TR and DSM5 eating disorders in adolescents: prevalence, stability, and psychosocial correlates in a population-based sample of male and female adolescents.” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 720-732.

Stice E, Marti CN, Shaw H, and Jaconis M. (2010). An 8-year longitudinal study of the natural history of threshold, subthreshold, and partial eating disorders from a community sample of adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 118(3):587-97. doi: 10.1037/a0016481. 

“What Is Public Health?” CDC Foundation, www.cdcfoundation.org/what-public-health.