AKEDA presents at Youth Mental Health Roundtable with Sen. Sullivan and Surgeon General Vivek Murthy
U.S.. Senator Dan Sullivan hosted the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, in Anchorage on Monday, June 26, 2023, for a series of discussions on youth mental health in Alaska. Beth Rose, Co-Founder of AKEDA, was invited to speak as one of 11 presenters at the Youth Mental Health Roundtable. Here are her speaking points from the presentation.
Thank you, Senator Sullivan and Dr. Murthy, for including the Alaska Eating Disorders Alliance (or AKEDA) in this round table on youth mental health. I started this organization in 2019 with my Co-Founder Jenny Loudon because we were both experiencing eating disorders in our families and found it difficult to get adequate care for our loved ones. In fact, we knew each other, but because of the stigma surrounding this illness, we didn’t know that each of us was struggling alone. We realized there was no one else in Alaska addressing this issue and created this nonprofit so that no one else would have to walk this path alone.
During the pandemic, what we saw was a steep rise in young people requiring care for eating disorders, and an increased strain on the Alaska health care system to meet that demand.
On a national level, eating disorder-related visits more than doubled among people younger than 17 in the past five years, and outpaced all other behavioral health conditions. Social media is contributing to the increase in incidence and acuity of eating disorders, affecting kids as young as 9 years old, who are signing up as 13 year olds on social media.
This increase is serious because these disorders are more common than people know. Before the pandemic, research showed that 9% of individuals will experience an eating disorder in their lifetime, but that number grehave the highest mortality rate of any mental health condition. About half of the deaths are due to suicide. Despite the stereotypes that eating disorders affect only white, teen, urban girls, they affect all demographic groups, and are seen throughout Alaska. Tribal health providers from small villages are reaching out to us for resources and training.
Eating disorders require medical treatment along with therapy and nutritional care. That care is in short supply in Alaska where waiting lists for informed providers are long and there are no in-state eating disorder treatment facilities. Alaskan youth who suffer from these life-threatening disorders must fly 1500 miles or further to get treatment. We need to expand the continuum of care in Alaska so care can be provided within our state.
AKEDA is working to grow Alaska’s health care capacity to address these illnesses through education, but we need help. We have found that many providers feel unprepared to work with clients with eating disorders because they are seen as “too complicated.” Children are turned away from therapists and even medical facilities. We can no longer expect that “someone else” will care for an individual with an eating disorder. Our youth cannot wait for 6 months to a year for a condition that can worsen quickly.
In the same way that providers have been trained to be trauma-informed, now providers need to become eating-disorders informed.
In addition, health care providers of all types should be encouraged to add regular screenings for eating disorder thoughts and behaviors. These illnesses are steeped in stigma and shame, and as a result, young people will not likely bring them up on their own. They often have never been asked about the extent to which concerns about their body, weight or appearance are affecting their daily functioning or sense of self-worth.
The positive thing is that eating disorders are treatable and full recovery is possible if diagnosed and treated early before dangerous behaviors become engrained. We need to address these disorders with same urgency as any illness that threatens the lives of our young people. AKEDA stands ready to partner in this effort as fully as possible. Thank you.