Eating disorders wreak havoc on the body, so it’s no secret that people who struggle with them are at risk of death. But few people may realize that people with eating disorders are also at increased risk of suicide. The suicide rate for people with eating disorders is higher than the rate in the general population.1

Prevalence

The mortality rate for people with anorexia nervosa is roughly 20%. At least one-fifth of these deaths are from suicide.2 One study of young girls with anorexia found that 60% of the participants exhibited suicidal behaviors and 49% exhibited self-harm behaviors.3 Another reported that roughly 17% of people with anorexia attempt suicide at least once in their lives, with people who develop purging symptoms having higher rates of attempts than those with restrictive symptoms.4 These statistics demonstrate the importance of assessing whether a person with an eating disorder is experiencing suicidal thoughts and getting them the appropriate treatment.

Self-Harm and Eating Disorders

People with eating disorders are also at risk for developing self-injurious behaviors. These behaviors can include cutting, hitting, burning, poisoning, or other actions that attempt to turn psychological pain into physical pain. Researchers estimate that 30 to 40% of people with an eating disorder will engage in self-harm.5 People who self-harm do not have the intention of committing suicide, but they are at increased risk of accidental death due to the extent of the injury or developing suicidal thoughts. Therefore, clinicians who treat people with eating disorders are encouraged to assess for a history or potential risk of self-harm behaviors.

Risk Factors

Risk factors for suicide among people with an eating disorder can include:6

  • previous suicide attempts
  • social isolation
  • additional mental illness
  • lack of fear of death
  • increased family conflict
  • thinking that they are a burden

Warning Signs

It’s also important to recognize the warning signs that frequently precede suicide attempts. People who are experiencing suicidal thoughts will feel hopeless and guilty about being a burden to others because of their eating disorder. They might have a sudden increase in substance use or other reckless behaviors. They may experience mood swings or increased anxiety or anger. They may begin to isolate from others or begin to give away their possessions. People may begin to talk about death or dying or not being around in the future. They also may begin to think about death and create a plan to harm themselves.

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What You Can Do

If you have a friend or family member with an eating disorder who is experiencing suicidal thoughts, it’s important that you show them support. There is often a fear that talking about suicide will make someone suicidal, but this is a myth. Asking someone if they are thinking about suicide does not put the thought in their head, so don’t be afraid to specifically ask them whether they’re planning on hurting themselves or committing suicide. Tell them that you care about them and that their life is meaningful. If a person has a plan and the means to harm themselves, help them restrict access to things like pills, weapons, etc. They should also develop a crisis plan that determines what they could do if they experience suicidal thoughts in the future, such as going to the hospital, calling 911, calling a friend, or engaging in coping behaviors that improve their mood.

Once the initial threat of suicide has been addressed, it’s important to help connect someone to long-term treatment for their eating disorder, suicidal ideation, and other conditions such as depression or substance abuse. Inpatient or intensive outpatient programs can be vital for helping a person with an eating disorder stabilize both their physical and mental health. A doctor or mental health professional can connect them to treatment programs in the area.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, never hesitate to reach out to someone for help. Many hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) are available 24/7 and free. The National Eating Disorders Association also has a hotline at 1-800-931-2237 and an online chat feature that are open certain days of the week, and they can connect you with resources and treatment options to help you get started with your recovery.

Eating disorders are treatable, and thoughts of suicide can be managed and overcome. What steps can you take today to feel happy and whole again?

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Last Updated: Dec 13, 2017