Monday, February 29, 2016

Walking a Thin Line: From Eating Disorder Survivor to School Counselor



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The word "advocacy" has always intimidated me a little bit.  And if you put it in the same sentence as "legislation," I would typically run the other way.  Well, I have recently come to realize the importance of both as they relate to me personally, as well as to our profession as school counselors.

You see, Senate File 2204 (SF 2204) was recently introduced by Iowa Senator Matt McCoy.  This legislation relates to insurance coverage for the assessment and treatment of eating disorders.  On the federal level, the Anna Westin Act (HR 2515) is a piece of bipartisan eating disorders legislation, currently in the US Senate, that would not only help improve insurance coverage for eating disorders but also seeks to provide early identification of eating disorders through training for school personnel and health professionals.  The Educating to Prevent Eating Disorders Act (HR 4153) would establish a middle school early intervention program.  This is perfect timing given that February 21-27 was National Eating Disorders Awareness Week.

What does that have to do with me, a school counselor who has, until now, cringed at the thought of becoming involved in anything even semi-political?  Well, I am an eating disorder survivor.  Anorexia and bulimia nearly took my life, just like they have for an estimated 20% of individuals suffering.  Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, 12 times higher than the death rate associated with all causes of death for females ages 15-24.  There is no doubt in my mind that I would have died from my eating disorder had I not received inpatient treatment when I did, at the age of 16.  And I wouldn't have received this treatment had my mom's employer not threatened to pull their entire insurance contract after the insurance company's initial denial of services.  My parents, a self-employed auto mechanic and school custodian, never would have been able to pay the $1000+ daily cost of inpatient treatment required to save my life.  
  
After staying strong in recovery for several years, I joined a group of people with a similar passion for eating disorders awareness and prevention.  We founded the Eating Disorder Coalition of Iowa, which became a non-profit organization in 2010.  At the same time, I was told by family and close friends that this passion of mine was clearly my purpose, and I began my master's program in school counseling.  What better way to educate others and prevent eating disorders than to encourage body positivity, teach mindfulness, and promote media literacy in schools?  With 42% of 1st-3rd-grade girls wanting to be thinner, 81% of 10-year-olds afraid of being fat, and the harm being caused by weighing and measuring kids at school, we as school counselors can make an incredible impact by educating our students and identifying eating disorders in the early stages.  This webinar, provided by ISCA, EDCI, and the Iowa College Access Network (ICAN) offers information and resources relating to eating disorders and body image in schools.  Also, last fall I sent out a survey on behalf of EDCI to you to help identify the needs of your schools and districts.  My goal, and the goal of EDCI is to offer tangible resources to meet these needs and to serve as your primary contact for classroom, assembly, or professional development presentations, or other outreach and education opportunities.

So there's the advocacy I'm talking about.  Who knew it would be so easy?  But what about the legislation.  We always hear "Contact your legislators!"  But can I do that?  I mean, how do I get their contact information?  Aren't they busy?  And what do I even write?

Interestingly enough, when you have a passion and a purpose, it is quite simple.  Last night, I gathered the contact information for all of the state legislators and organized them into this neat spreadsheet. (See, you have one less thing to do!)  Then I wrote a very convincing email, requesting their support for SF 2204.  Sharing a few facts about eating disorders and some of my personal narrative, the words came easier than I expected.  Unbelievably, I received my first response within an hour!  (Hmm, maybe they aren't as busy as I thought!)  That is when I learned that this advocacy and legislature thing wasn't as bad as it seemed.  In fact, I am fueled by the excitement of receiving responses that validate my cause, support this legislation, and reinforce why I chose this rewarding profession.  This is truly what it means to make a difference--systemic change!

Votes will be taken on SF 2204 within the next 5-7 days.  And the Anna Westin Act will be moving to the Senate very soon.  HR 4153 was recently referred to the US Subcommittee on Health.  Now that you know you can do this too, I hope you will.  I am even giving you the contact information for our Washington leaders.  I would love to know that your first act of legislative advocacy included promoting these important, life-saving bills.  In doing so, you are not only effecting change for our students but for our profession and for me, your colleague and friend.       

Write and tell me about your first experience with legislative advocacy!  You can find me on social media too!  
Ann Christiansen, MSEd
K-8 School Counselor
St. Theresa Catholic School, Des Moines
lilredcounselor@gmail.com
https://www.facebook.com/thelilredcounselor
"You are valuable just because you exist.  Not because of what you do, or what you have done, but simply because you are."  ~Max Lucado

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