Should Schools Screen Students for Eating Disorders?

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

According to current research, eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating affect at least 3.8 percent of teen girls and 1.5 percent of teen boys in the United States. Despite the high number of diagnoses, a disturbingly low number of these teens – around 3 to 28 percent –receive any kind of treatment.

Looking for ways to turn the tide, a new Boston Children’s Hospital study published in The American Journal of Public Health reveals that a simple school screening could offer a cost-effective solution.

Eating Disorders and Kids

It’s a proven fact that eating disorders are among the most potentially dangerous psychiatric disorders diagnosed in kids. Left untreated, they can cause serious medical complications, hospitalizations, and even death. With treatment being the best option for recovery, early identification is vital.

To minimize the health and cost burdens associated with childhood eating disorders, researchers looked to The SCOFF Questionnaire. This is a self-administered set of five questions that, once answered by students, is “scored” by teachers. Students identified as “at risk” for an eating disorder are subsequently referred to clinicians for evaluation and treatment. UK schools have been utilizing the SCOFF questions for several years with success.

Students identified as “at risk” for an eating disorder are subsequently referred to clinicians for further evaluation and treatment.

How the SCOFF Questionnaire Works

SCOFF developers identified five questions that would address the core features of anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Students between the ages of 10 and 17 are given a simple paper handout and asked to privately and honestly answer the following:

  • Do you make yourself sick because you feel uncomfortably full?
  • Do you worry you have lost control over how much you eat?
  • Have you recently lost or gained more than 14 pounds in a 3 month period?
  • Do you believe you are fat, even though your friends/family members say you are too thin?
  • Would you say that food dominates your life?

For every questioned answered “yes,” the teacher applies one point. Scores equal to or greater than 2 indicate a likely case of eating disorder.

Related: Do You Know the Warning Signs of Bulimia?

Screened vs. Non-Screened Outcomes

Researchers found this simple method of screening is a cost-effective way to identify high-risk youth who often go undiagnosed and undertreated, including low-income, minority, overweight, and male teens. It would appear that a majority of school-age parents are on board with the initiative, with a recent poll finding 53 percent of affected adults supporting and welcoming school-based eating disorder screenings.

Learn more about treatment options for eating disorders.

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