Adolescent Depression and Binge Eating Often Go Hand-in-Hand
By Michael Pertschuck, MD
Many adolescents struggling with binge eating disorders, characterized by the uncontrollable rapid consumption of large amounts of food even when not physically hungry, are also at risk for depression. The reverse is also true: Those who are depressed may be more likely to start binge eating.
Although it’s not clear why research has shown that the two often go hand-in-hand and leave many suffering secretly because the one or both conditions have gone undiagnosed and untreated.
Think of it this way. You feel depressed because you have eaten too much or you eat too much because you feel depressed. For binge eaters, this vicious cycle is relentless leaving feelings of guilt and shame in addition to other negative emotions commonly associated with depression, such as:
- Lost interest in activities
- Extreme sadness and/or unhappiness
- Difficulty sleeping
- Suicidal thoughts
To make matters worse, binge eating may lead to weight gain, which can become an additional stressor as adolescents constantly compare themselves to their peers and are vulnerable to social rejection, isolation, and teasing for any trait that is seen as different or undesirable.
Tailoring a Plan to the Individual’s Needs
Parents of adolescents often do not know how to intervene. Some may even chastise or reprimand their daughter or son for overeating and weight gain, which can compound the problem.
The good news is recovery from binge eating disorders with underlying depression is achievable and involves a plan tailored to the individual’s needs and one that addresses both conditions simultaneously.
Intensive Outpatient Programs
Formal programs like partial hospitals or intensive outpatient programs typically provide ready-made teams of experts that work together to develop an appropriate treatment approach that addresses all the needs of an adolescent with a binging disorder.
These programs typically incorporate specialized therapy designed to provide emotional support and to help repair damaged self-esteem. Sometimes antidepressant medication may be needed to help remove the cloud of depression that can lead the adolescent to feel that he or she is beyond help.
Parents also play a significant role in the treatment and recovery of their child. This may involve more consistent meals, altering schedules to provide supervision, and involving their child in more physical activities.
Inpatient or Hospitalization Program
In cases where the problem has progressed too beyond the realm of outpatient care, a hospital or residential program may be the best or only option. Binge associated depression can become so profound that the child is no longer safe at home because of suicidal impulses or repeated self-harming behavior.
In addition, binge associated weight gain may reach a point of medical danger with conditions such as uncontrolled diabetes, frequent asthma attacks, and/or severe high blood pressure.
Factors to Consider When Choosing Treatment
There are professional resources out there, but what you can access typically depends on where you live and on your health insurance. In selecting a program, factors to consider include:
- How far is the treatment facility from your home?
- How does the program feel to you? Supportive? Responsive?
- What types of services are offered and who provides them?
- What is the treatment model?
- Is your insurance accepted there?
Remember, having binge eating disorder and depression, whether you are personally suffering or someone close to you is, is not a sign of weakness. It is also not something that can be overcome with just willpower. Many people struggle with these conditions on a daily basis and need help to get better.
The First Steps to Recovery
Admitting there is a problem is the first step. It may require an observant, caring, and persistent parent to overcome the adolescent’s natural reluctance and shame to admit there is a problem and start the process of healing for the adolescent and their family.
The right treatment can help restore quality of life, self-esteem, and good physical and mental health. Getting help has worked for so many people, and it can work for you or your loved one, too.