Eating disorders: Links with Suicide

Eating disorders are among the most difficult psychological conditions to treat for the simple reason that they’re so unrelenting in nature. Food, eating, and meals are things that we all have to deal with at least three times a day. This means that the anorexic, the bulimic, and the compulsive overeater are up against this perceived enemy almost constantly.

A person in this condition can easily become exhausted, isolated, and prone to thoughts of self-destruction. The danger is especially high in the case of the severe anorexic, whose body is starved and whose brain chemistry has been destabilized through lack of adequate nutrition. All of this, added to the self-hatred and shame that usually accompany the condition, can reduce the individual to a condition in which suicide seems like the only way out.

Harvard psychologist T. E. Joiner, in The Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide, suggests that individuals with eating disorders often come to see themselves as a burden to others.[1] This feeling, combined with social isolation, creates a perfect storm in which the person becomes unusually capable of thinking about and carrying out suicidal thoughts. The results can be disastrous.

Myths and Facts about Eating Disorders and Suicide[2]

Myth: Eating disorders are really a form of slow suicide.
Fact: Eating disorders are characterized by a desire for thinness and not to feel rather than a desire for death.

Myth: People with anorexia are less likely to choose violent methods of suicide because they tend to avoid anything that causes pain.
Fact: Although people with anorexia tend to avoid behaviors that will intentionally harm their bodies, they have become used to damaging their bodies, which overrides these tendencies.

Myth: People with EDs are more likely to die by suicide because they’re medically compromised.
Fact: People with EDs are more likely to die by suicide attempt because they use more lethal means.

Myth: People with EDs tend to attempt suicide because they have more selfish traits than individuals with other disorders.
Fact: People with or without EDs who attempt suicide tend to do so to relieve their perceived burden on others rather than as a selfish act.

Myth: People with EDs are more impulsive and therefore more likely to make an impulsive decision to die by suicide.
Fact: Most suicides are the result of long planning and deliberation, with or without an ED.

  1. Cited in Nicole Siegfried, Ph.D., CEDS, “When the Eating Disorder Client Is Suicidal,” Gurze-Salucore Eating Disorders Resources Catalogue, August 31, 2015, https://edcatalogue.com/when-the-eating-disorder-client-is-suicidal/.
  2. Thomas Joiner, Myths about Suicide (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010).

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