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Credit: daniellehelm on Flickr, on Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0)

(WOMENSENEWS)– The theme of this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, from Feb. 23 through March 1, is "I Had No Idea."

Every theme for the past few years has come from my own experience as a parent, and "I Had No Idea" speaks to me personally because I had no idea that I was missing the warning signs of an eating disorder in my own family.

This theme is also appropriate since most people have no idea that eating disorders can be deadly, that they destroy lives, that they can pull families into financial ruin and that millions of people suffer without receiving the treatment they need. The bottom line is that most Americans have no idea that eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder, are not lifestyle choices, but rather biologically-based illnesses that often run in families.

An estimated 20 million women will have an eating disorder at some point in their life, with too many dying, including by suicide, from the consequences. Anorexia is the most fatal mental disorder.

Meanwhile, federal funding for research is minimal compared to mental disorders that afflict far fewer people.

For example, about 2.2 million people suffer from schizophrenia, and the National Institutes of Health designates approximately $268 million annually toward research in that area. Yet 30 million people are afflicted by eating disorders, and only $34 million is spent each year on eating disorders research. Yes, I bet you had no idea.

Slow Progress

The federal government is taking steps to improve coverage for eating disorders, but the progress is slow and often hard to pin down.

The Affordable Care Act and federal Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 are the most relevant legislative changes in the delivery of behavioral health care, which includes the treatment of eating disorders.

These regulatory changes set the stage for more expansive coverage for eating disorders as a chronic illness. This is important because it requires the health care field to develop standards by which eating disorders are diagnosed, evaluated and treated. It also requires that the field create clear designation of best practices and evidenced-based treatments for eating disorders.

It is truly a national tragedy that because so many of us have no idea, we are not detecting, intervening and treating most cases of eating disorder at the earliest stages.

Because of this collective ignorance, we are letting people get too sick and losing far too many lives to these treatable illnesses. I encourage women to take advantage of the free online screening tool to help determine if perhaps they should seek help.

With the goal of raising awareness and saving lives, in addition to encouraging people who struggle to seek treatment, the National Eating Disorders Association sponsors NEDAwareness Week every year.

The numbers of volunteers around the country doing NEDAwareness activities has exploded, especially on college campuses, and our social media campaigns are reaching millions more than ever before. It is time that everyone turns the corner from having no idea to getting in the know about eating disorders. I encourage you to learn more, spread the word and support other women who are struggling with an eating disorder.

Test your knowledge of eating disorders and take this online quiz created for NEDAwareness Week.

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