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Should Schools Screen Kids For Eating Disorders? Study Finds It Would Cost Little

(Wikimedia Commons)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

Do you believe yourself to be fat when others say you are too thin?

Would you say that food dominates your life?

Have you recently lost more than 14 pounds in a three-month period?

I wonder, if I had answered these questions during my sophomore year of high school, would my anorexia have been caught earlier on? As a female ballerina with a Type A personality, I was an obvious candidate, but it took several months of starving myself before my eating disorder was diagnosed and treated.

According to a new Boston Children’s Hospital study, school screenings with questions like these could be a cost-effective way to detect eating disorders. At 35 cents apiece, a brief questionnaire could help identify and treat some of the most serious and potentially dangerous psychiatric disorders in kids.

Yet while the price is low, recent experiences with school obesity screening suggest that the issues can go beyond money.

Eating disorders, which include anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating disorder, affect at least 3.8 percent of teen girls and 1.5 percent of teen boys in the U.S. While effective therapies exist, only about 3 to 28 percent of teens actually receive treatment.

If left untreated, eating disorders can lead to serious medical complications, hospitalizations and even death. I think my own anorexia went undiagnosed for so long mainly because of the many lies I told about my diet—”I already ate,” “I had a huge lunch”—and the countless hours I spent in school and dance classes, out of my parent’s sight and scrutiny.

But I was lucky: I narrowly avoided hospital time. I only had to make frequent visits to my own health care trifecta—pediatrician, dietician and therapist. Had my anorexia been more severe or diagnosed even later—as is often the case—my treatment might have involved residential therapies and been much more expensive.

So could school screenings help catch the diseases earlier? The new study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, assessed whether they could help minimize both the health burdens and the cost burdens of eating disorders.

Using a computer simulation, the researchers compared the annual screening of 10- to 17-year-olds with a no-screening scenario. Continue reading