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Virginia to arm parents in fight against eating disorders

Monday - 4/1/2013, 4:41am  ET

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Eating disorders are an exploding problem for both teen girls and boys. Beginning next school year, Virginia schools will arm parents with information about signs to look for that could indicate their child has an eating disorder. (Thinkstock)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Virginia is taking aim at eating disorders.

Gov. Bob McDonnell recently signed a new law that requires school districts to provide information on anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorders, which can lead to morbid obesity, to parents with children in grades 5 through 12.

The program will begin with the 2013-14 school year. Supporters call it a first step in tackling a growing problem.

Del. Richard "Dickie" Bell, R-Staunton, led the fight to get the measure through the Virginia General Assembly.

The retired school teacher-turned lawmaker speaks of his bill with the conviction of a man who has spent much of his life working with teens.

"I have had close-up and personal experience with eating disorders in some of my former students, and I have seen how devastating it can be," he says.

Bell says most adults know little about eating disorders and miss the warning signs when a child is in trouble. He says the severity of the problem has been grossly understated, in large part because kids hide it, and families struggling with eating disorders don't want to talk about them.

Experts say eating disorders are rampant among the young. Bell says medical professionals he worked with to draft the bill told him the problem is exploding not just in Virginia, but across the country.

D.C. psychologist Gregory Jones says eating disorders are one of the leading causes of death for women ages 15 to 24.

"When you ask the average American what is the most deadly of all mental health issues, they are going to say depression, suicide. Wrong. Eating disorders are the most deadly of all mental health concerns," Jones says.

Ninety percent of all eating disorder cases are believed to involve teenage girls. Boys also are affected but are less likely to seek treatment because it is seen as a "girl's diseases," he says.

Jones says that there is a lack of information for parents, and Virginia is taking a step in the right direction by having schools help fill the gap.

Parents who suspect something is wrong should contact their family doctors or pediatricians. Jones also recommends that parents check out a website called somethingfishy.org.

Despite the weird name, Jones says the site offers a lot of good information about eating disorders that covers all ages, races and sexes. He says it's also a great tool for those looking for treatment options.

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