At least 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder in their lifetimes. Though the condition has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, it’s stigmatized—shrouded in the commonly held view that eating disorders are mere “lifestyle choices.”
SIS alumna Katrina Velasquez wanted to combat both the stigma and the mental illness itself. And in 2016, as a lobbyist, she achieved something historic: successfully advocating for the passage of the first-ever eating disorders legislation.
“The eating disorder community has never had a federal legislative victory in history,” says Velasquez, SIS/MA ’09. “The passage was an overwhelmingly positive experience that brought hope to a community that’s never had hope.”
The piece of legislation is entitled the Anna Westin Act of 2015, and its key provisions were passed within the 21st Century Cures Act (P.L. 114-225). Thanks to the passage, health professionals receive training to identify the early signs and symptoms of eating disorders. Additionally, as a result, the Office on Women’s Health provides updated resources to help the general public identify and understand eating disorders. The legislation also improves health insurance coverage for eating disorders, so there’s greater access to various treatment options.
A Personal Reason
Velasquez advocates for a handful of social causes including school safety, women’s health, mental health, people with disabilities, and military and veterans’ issues. She was particularly drawn to working on the issue of eating disorders because she witnessed how they took hold of her friends and members of her family.
“During undergrad and through grad school, I had a lot of friends who battled eating disorders, both male and female,” says Velasquez. “I wanted to address an issue that I’ve seen, throughout my life, affect family and friends.”
Velasquez notes that there are four periods, specifically in a woman’s life, that commonly trigger eating disorders: “Puberty, going to college, pregnancy, and menopause. With mental illness, those life stressors along with biology and environment, it’s a perfect storm to trigger this deadly disease.”
The Good Lobbyist
“Lobbyist” isn’t always seen as a favorable word. In fact, Washingtonians often associate lobbyists with corporate interests, big business, and the phrase “money talks.” But Velasquez represents the side of the profession that advocates for social progress.
Velasquez’s time at SIS inspired her to become what she calls a good lobbyist, the kind of advocate who strives to make a positive impact. While working on Capitol Hill and with nonprofit organizations, she realized that lobbyists could make immediate changes, both on the international and domestic sides of politics.
“You have to put your efforts toward doing good instead of trying to make a lot of money,” says Velasquez. “When people are deciding what careers to go into, they shouldn’t immediately brush [this path] off because, as a lobbyist, you can do a lot of good.”