How West Virginia Is Addressing Student Self Harm and Eating Disorders

The West Virginia state capitol building around sunset. The capitol's reflection is captured in the Kanawha River below.
The West Virginia state capitol building around sunset. The capitol's reflection is captured in the Kanawha River below.
April 23, 2024

This post contains discussion of sensitive topics, including self-harm, suicide and eating disorders. If you or a loved one are experiencing self-harm ideation or eating disorder symptoms, help is available. Learn more from the National Eating Disorder Association, or text or call 9-8-8.

While health officials and state leaders are still working to understand the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students, emerging studies suggest that time away from the classroom has resulted in not only significant interrupted instruction and increased chronic absenteeism, but also significant increases in various forms of self-harm, including eating disorders.

Eating disorders are mental and physical conditions that can be caused by genetic and environmental factors. It is estimated that 22% of children worldwide show signs of disordered eating, and these disordered habits disproportionately impact females, people of color, LGTBQIA+ individuals and athletes.

The statistics are deeply personal for West Virginia Del. Wayne Clark. His daughter Meghan’s eating disorder and acts of self-harm were triggered by a school cheer coach’s comments about her weight and role on the team.  Meghan began engaging in unhealthy weight control habits and was ultimately hospitalized due to significant loss of body weight and a dangerously low heart rate. Meghan has since received in-patient and out-patient treatment and therapy, and her story is the inspiration for her father to pursue legislation in the hopes that her story can help school staff identify and support students who are experiencing similar eating disorders or other forms of self-harm.

In 2022, the West Virginia Legislature passed H.B. 4074, otherwise known as “Meghan’s Law,” with unanimous bipartisan support. Meghan’s Law requires all school employees and school district volunteers in the state to complete training every three years that educates them on how to recognize, prevent and respond to students’ self-harm behaviors and eating disorders.

The West Virginia Department of Education developed an educator guide and training with several important resources for educators and school employees. The guide and training requirements are meant to educate staff on how to recognize warning signs of self-harm behaviors and eating disorders. They also show staff how to appropriately support students who exhibit warning signs of self-harm or eating disorders. As of Sept. 1, 2022, West Virginia students in grades five through 12 also receive information regarding awareness, prevention and treatment.

Other states have also recently been addressing eating disorders through legislation.

  • In 2023, Pennsylvania proposed H.B. 27, which would provide information regarding eating disorder awareness and education to students in grades six through 12. This proposed bill would also engage parents with information that lays out warning signs, risk factors and resources about eating disorders.
  • This year, New York is considering S. 05225, which would require public school students to be screened for eating disorders — a new addition to the required health certificate each student needs to complete prior to entering a new grade.
  • Colorado also proposed H.B. 24-1285 which adds a pattern of bullying based on weight, height or body size to the prohibited bullying behavior under the definition of bullying behaviors.

It's Del. Clark’s hope that Meghan’s story resonates, and West Virginia’s strong, bipartisan effort can be replicated in other states as they grapple with the importance of this difficult issue. West Virginia’s efforts highlight how quick, thoughtful action and leveraging school staff can play a pivotal role in self-harm prevention and supporting students who may be struggling with similar health issues.

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