Youth eating disorder bill faces challenges in New York State Legislation, changes needed

Dialogue around eating disorders can cause consciousness about weight, which is a key factor in the development of them. Photo by: Matthew Galgano

OSWEGO, N.Y. –As a result of teen mental health struggles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, New York State legislation has been introduced that would implement a course of study on the prevention of eating disorders in schools. However, legislative struggles have caused the bill to sit dormant, needing support and changes to progress.

Throughout the pandemic, there was a huge increase in the need for mental health and eating disorder support. According to a study published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, since 2020 eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia were 42% higher for teenage girls aged 13-16 and 32% higher for teenage girls aged 17-19. Alarmingly, the number of self-harm cases was 38% higher in girls aged 13-16. 

“It’s a good bill and a good idea, but two things that we’ve kind of found in the last three years, curriculum bills in particular, are kind of hard to pass. They take a while,” said Mario Ferone, chief of staff for the office of Assemblywoman Sillitti. “Sometimes what will happen is you’ll see a bill about curriculums, and the idea is to get momentum in the hopes that the Regents will kind of take over.”

The Assembly Bill A6168 would include staff training to help students spot these disorders for grades 5-12. If the bill is passed, the curriculum changes the bill highlights would take effect on July 1 of the following year.

The bill was introduced in 2020 by Sen. Anna M. Kaplan and picked up in 2021 by Assemblywoman Gina Sillitti. Since then, the bill has not been reintroduced. There is a conversation in Silliti’s office on whether they should try and push the bill during the next session, and what differences the bill would see if they did.

As curriculum bills have trouble gaining traction in the New York Legislature, the office of Assemblywoman Sillitti will need to make changes to the bill. The goal would be to gather as much press attention as possible, in order to gain more stakeholder support and get the attention of the state Education Department. If the bill got more support earlier on from students and school boards who would be in favor of it, along with medical professionals, the state Education Department would see that there is a demand for this cause. 

“I think it would be more of what we learned from these other bills is less of trying to get it through education and more of using it as a talking point and a means to get this to pass through the State Board of Regents,” said Ferone. “We don’t really want New York to become kind of like Texas or Florida, where you have politicians write in the school program. So it’s been hard on our end to try to push some of these kinds of bills.”

Adee Levinstein, clinical dietician training specialist at the Eating Recovery Center, believes that students struggling with eating disorders would benefit from a course highlighting the prevention of them.

“I know that there is this idea that if we talk about something, we’re more likely to make it happen, but all the research shows the opposite is true,” said Levinstein. “So I think it can actually reduce that stigma, reduce isolation around eating disorders.”

Levinstein also says that the current dialogue that schools give towards this issue can be easily misconstrued and lead to unhealthy behavior. Things like BMI reports and conversations around health and weight can affect students negatively.

“Messaging in the cafeteria around schools of good foods and bad foods, or healthy, unhealthy behaviors that… typically are very well-intentioned, but certain folks would take that to extremes,” said Levinstein. 

With a clear need for improvement in the school dialogue for teen eating disorders, there still is a drive to make changes and reintroduce this bill, there just needs to be support and a dialogue started. Emailing or calling local representatives and advocating for this bill is the best way to show that there is still support for this cause, and increase the chances of the bill being reintroduced. 

“I think that’s kind of what would have to happen is to build a discourse around it. So both between the elected and then also with individuals spreading in the network and trying to get letter support or letters to the editors to show their support for the bill,” said Ferone.