Fighting for Survival: Legislating Eating Disorders


Before any major holiday – be it Thanksgiving or 4th of July – we are reminded of the central role that food plays in our culture. Holidays like these should also shift our attention to the important problem of eating disorders, which affect over 30 million Americans.

This summer, Congress may consider a bill (S.2680) that would dedicate vital resources to eating disorder prevention and treatment. Little legislation exists that focuses on eating disorders, and so the time is now for Congress to address this disease.

Eating disorders are among the deadliest of all mental illnesses. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, anorexia nervosa, a common type of eating disorder, has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. Treatment is challenging; anorexia is governed by brain processes that once set in motion are inflexible and slow to change.

Often, patients with anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder arrive at the doctor’s office or hospital with severe, irreversible health damage – from the 30-year-old with the bone density of a 75-year-old to the 20-year-old with severe heart damage that causes an abnormally slow heart rate and an increased risk of heart failure. Victims of eating disorders may ultimately succumb to starvation or metabolic collapse – or fall victim to suicide, which is not uncommon for those struggling with the disease.

Recovery is possible with proper medical care. While some researchers differ on the most effective form of treatment, it is generally accepted that a combination of medical and psychological approaches can make an impact. Studies have demonstrated the importance of inpatient treatment for more severe cases of eating disorders. And, as with most illnesses, catching eating disorders early often gives patients a better chance at recovery.

Beyond the doctor’s office, the support of family and friends is essential. As someone who has researched the topic at length in the course of my work with Antenna Group’s life sciences practice, I am familiar with the dangerous misconception still held by many that eating disorders are simply lapses in judgment. Public awareness and empathy from friends and family can be key to individual recovery.

Public awareness and nuanced understanding of eating disorders can also help shape informed public policy. In March 2016, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee passed key provisions of the Anna Westin Act of 2015 as part of the Mental Health Reform Act (S.2680). The original Anna Westin Act was the first piece of bipartisan eating disorder legislation in over a decade. It was inspired by a 21-year-old girl who tragically took her own life following a five-year battle with anorexia nervosa after being denied insurance coverage for treatment.

If the Mental Health Reform Act moves forward – as it is expected to this summer – the bill would draw from the Anna Westin Act to provide for the education of health professionals and school personnel on eating disorder prevention and treatment. It would also strengthen insurance coverage of eating disorders for residential treatment.

The bill takes a research-based approach to prevention, starting with training for health professionals and school personnel. While most schools have extensive education programs for the prevention of drug and alcohol addiction, very few offer eating disorder education or prevention programs. This is especially important since eating disorders frequently appear during adolescence or young adulthood.

The bill also addresses the problem of insurance for eating disorder treatment. Eating disorders are rarely adequately covered by insurance, and very few of the 30 million Americans who struggle the disease are able to secure approval for adequate treatment. As a result, many people are denied proper medical care for eating disorders.

Policies like the Mental Health Reform Act can help prevent and treat this deadliest of all mental illnesses. Legislative efforts also provide eating disorder victims with a platform to speak up, to unite with others, and to seek help. Congress must work to pass sound legislation on eating disorders, and must treat this deadly illness with the seriousness it deserves.

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