A Parallel Issue: The Relationship Between Mental Health and Eating Disorders

mental illness eating disorder

Mental illness is a serious condition and has underlying impact on individuals and the greater community. We are all impacted by it in one way or another, and knowing how to identify and talk through this issue is crucial to understanding how to navigate it in our lives and relationships. This often begins with an awareness of its prevalence in our society. Mental illness can manifest alongside a variety of conditions that appear to be solely physical or biological, such as eating disorders.

Eating disorders are complex medical and psychiatric illnesses that can severely affect an individual’s health and relationships. Conditions like anorexia and bulimia can even become life-threatening and put those affected in serious physical and mental danger. They are multifaceted illnesses that go far beneath the surface of one’s diet and physical appearance.

The medical risks of eating disorders are widely recognized and include starvation, malnourishment and heart disease. What many do not recognize are the mental risks. 33-50% of anorexia patients have a mood disorder, such as depression. One study also found that people with anorexia are 56 times more likely to commit suicide than non-sufferers. These statistics suggest that the mental aspect of eating disorders is more dominant than we may assume. While it is possible for an eating disorder to develop as an isolated illness, various research suggests that the majority are closely linked to numerous mental health problems. Knowing this, health care providers are able to target the conditions and create an effective plan for recovery.

Factors that Contribute to Mental Illness

Like most mental illnesses, eating disorders can be caused by a multitude of factors. This could be any combination of sociocultural, psychological and biological influences including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Pressure to be a certain weight
  • History of sexual abuse and other trauma
  • Use of food as a coping mechanism
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality type
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Substance abuse

These are just a few of many other factors related to mental health that could cause a person to develop an eating disorder. Once you can identify where the underlying problems rest, you can start addressing the symptoms of the illness. Oftentimes, when people struggle with mental health challenges, they begin to develop feelings of fear that translate into social phobia, as well as become obsessive and compulsive in regard to self-image, food and weight. These tendencies are physical manifestations of a greater underlying issue. About half of anorexia and bulimia patients also have one or more of these anxiety disorders. These conditions then produce feelings of guilt and suffering, resulting in over- or under-eating as an attempt to self-medicate.

Other research has proven that an eating disorder may also lead to depression or substance abuse problems, reversing and fueling the cycle. At this point, it is more important than ever to have professional and relational support. Understanding the physical and mental burden a friend or family member is carrying can help us enter into the ongoing healing process alongside them. A simple act of offering support can often serve as a catalyst for change and a jump start into recovery.

Additionally, brain functionality is impacted when someone has an eating disorder. It is true that our thoughts affect our behavior, and when consumed by an eating disorder, we subsequently train our brains how to respond to things that are happening in our lives by controlling our relationship with food. Nearly one in 10 bulimia patients have a substance abuse disorder, usually alcohol use. If one convinces his or her mind that they are only beautiful after binging and purging, thoughts about their body and food become trained to certain behaviors, whether they are healthy or destructive. When someone has decided to approach the path toward healing, it’s important for them to learn how to eat without guilt or shame. It’s equally important for them to regain self-confidence in who they are to rebuild a positive body image. This requires holistic care and mental health support.

It is crucial to recognize these co-occurring mental health conditions as both a cause and effect of an eating disorder in order to identify the root of the issue and find a comprehensive treatment solution that leads to sustained recovery for the brain and the body.

May was Mental Health Month, but there’s always a chance to raise awareness and promote education surrounding the often-misunderstood elements of mental illness, its relationship to co-occurring conditions and its impact on our community. At Fairhaven, we understand that the correlation between mental health and eating disorders is strong and complex. A comprehensive care team can address both the physical and the mental ramifications of eating disorders, something that is necessary for a complete recovery. By listening and truly understanding this relationship, we are able to significantly improve the lives of our clients and lead them toward total healing and freedom.


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