Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place
Suicide is most often connected with depression, but the truth is that eating disorders can also increase a person’s chances of dying by suicide.
Researchers surveyed more than 36,000 U.S. adults to better understand the link between eating disorders and suicide. Compared with respondents who did not have an eating disorder (5%), those who had anorexia nervosa (24.9%), bulimia nervosa (31.4%), and binge-eating disorder (22.9%) were much more likely to attempt suicide .
For many of the adults who were surveyed, their struggles with an eating disorder began before they first attempted suicide.
While the reasons why a person may be thinking about suicide are unique to them, it is crucial to understand how an eating disorder may contribute to those thoughts.
A Challenging Illness
There are many misconceptions about eating disorders, the most popular of which oversimplifies these conditions to an insatiable drive for thinness. And while some people who have an eating disorder do struggle with body image, the challenges that come with an eating disorder are much deeper.
When a person suffers from an eating disorder, they are compromised in how they think, eat, or spend their time . The illness may take over and negatively impact their decisions f — no matter how harmful the effects are to their physical health, relationships, or career.
Physically, the impact can be devastating.
Each eating disorder affects the body differently, but in general, when a person does not eat enough calories, their body starts to break itself down to create fuel. This process usually starts with the muscles, making heart failure a serious risk. But before that happens, the person may start to feel weak, dizzy, or short of breath .
Vomiting or using laxatives to purge food can drain the body of vital chemicals called electrolytes that help the heartbeat at its normal rhythm. The more a person purges, the more likely it is that they will suffer from stomach pain, bloating, or damage to their esophagus or intestines.
Other people who have an eating disorder may struggle with changes in their hormones, which can affect menstruation, cause osteoporosis, and lead to the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Thriving on Shame
Most people head to the doctor or ask for help when their health begins to decline. But eating disorders are illnesses that thrive in the dark, and the shame and guilt a person often feels about the behaviors associated with these diseases can push them to hide their suffering.
Living with an eating disorder can be isolating, and when a person feels alone in their struggles, it can create the ideal environment for compulsions such as restricting food intake, bingeing, or purging to truly take hold.
The more the eating disorder urges a person to hide their struggles, the more their shame and self-loathing grow. So, not only does their physical health continue to decline, but their emotional health also worsens with each passing day.
Without professional intervention, this can lead a person to think about how to end their suffering, and this may include thoughts of suicide.
Know the Warning Signs
Not everyone who has an eating disorder thinks about suicide, but the likelihood of having suicidal thoughts is much greater for those who have an eating disorder. Learning what signs to look out for can help you know when a person might be in crisis :
- Withdraws from friends and family – Just like with an eating disorder, a person isolating themselves from loved ones can indicate that they are having thoughts of suicide.
- Changes in sleep patterns – A person suddenly cannot get quality sleep or is sleeping all the time.
- Unusual mood swings – They seem unusually irritated, agitated, or enraged.
- Seems down or sad – You can’t remember the last time you saw them smile, and they talk about how hopeless they feel.
- Feels like a burden – They keep saying that others would be better off without them.
- Increased substance use – They have started drinking alcohol or using drugs more often.
- Behaves recklessly – They have started taking risks, like running red lights or driving under the influence, that could cause serious injury.
- Feels intense emotional pain – They say that their feelings are too intense to bear anymore.
- Talks about death or dying – They keep talking about wanting to die, keep talking about death or dying, or have a suicide plan.
The warning signs of suicide can look different for everyone, but these are some of the most common. If you think that someone you love might be at immediate risk for suicide, call 911. You can also get 24/7 support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Living with an eating disorder may put a person at greater risk for suicide, but it doesn’t have to end in tragedy. With the right support, they can find recovery and live a full, productive life.
References Udo, T., Bitley, S., & Grilo, C.M. (2019). Suicide attempts in U.S. adults with lifetime DSM-5 eating disorders. BMC Medicine. 17, 120. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12916-019-1352-3.  Getz, L. (n.d.). Anorexia to suicide — the desperate path. Social Work Today. Retrieved from: https://www.socialworktoday.com/news/enews_0812_01.shtml.  National Eating Disorders Association. (2021). Health consequences. Retrieved from: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/health-consequences.  National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. (n.d.). Know the warning signs. Retrieved from: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/how-we-can-all-prevent-suicide/.
About The Sponsor
McCallum Place is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. We provide comprehensive treatment for adolescents and adults. We also offer a specialty treatment program for athletes who are living with eating disorders. Our experienced treatment team works closely with each patient to ensure that they play a central role in their recovery process. We offer a full range of services to meet the unique needs of each patient and address all issues related to the treatment of eating disorders.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published November 17, 2021 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on November 17, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC