Suicide Awareness Month — a link between suicide and eating disorders
As an expert in the field of eating disorders for over 35 years, I have helped thousands of patients and families overcome anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and related food, eating and body image concerns. Lasting eating recovery is possible — even likely — with early intervention from experienced experts.
However, the elevated incidence of suicide is a serious barrier to recovery for eating disordered individuals. Recent estimates suggest that suicide rates are 23 percent higher in those with eating disorders than in the general population. And, little known to the general public, eating disorder rates of death by suicide are significantly higher than that of depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Consider this — the suicide mortality rate in people with anorexia nervosa (AN) is the highest of any psychiatric illness. Individuals with AN are 31 times more likely to make a fatal suicide attempt than the general population, and more than half of AN deaths are a result of suicide and not the medical complications of self-starvation.
Bulimia nervosa (BN) and binge eating disorder (BED) also carry elevated rates of suicide. Individuals with BN are nearly eight times more likely to die by suicide than the general population and 1/3 of women with BN will attempt suicide at least once. Individuals with BED have been found to have a higher suicide rate than general population and approximately 15 percent of adolescents with BED having attempted suicide.
Further elevating the incidence of suicide attempts and fatalities in individuals with eating disorders is the increased incidence of serious psychiatric conditions occurring alongside an eating disorder, including depression, anxiety, trauma and substance abuse. Each of these mental health concerns carries a heightened risk of suicide in and of itself, and the risk becomes even higher when the psychiatric diagnosis is paired with an eating disorder.
These alarming statistics underscore a growing mental health crisis in our country, and even the legislative community is taking note. Recognizing that suicide prevention is a critical component of saving American lives, they have brought forth a comprehensive mental health bill this season.
The Mental Health Reform Act of 2016 (S. 2680) aims to combat suicide in our schools and communities, as well as strengthen enforcement of mental health parity law, invest in early intervention, integrate medical and mental health care and strengthen the community crisis response system.
Of urgent importance to the eating disorder community, the S. 2680 includes provisions from the eating disorder-based Anna Westin Act of 2015 — S. 1865, passed on March 16, 2016. These provisions include delivering training for frontline health professional on early identification of eating disorders, increasing public information about and resources for eating disorders, and improving access to treatment through clarity of mental health parity as it relates to eating disorder benefits.
Eating disorders are serious and highly lethal mental illnesses, and far too many people are dying at the hands of these insidious diseases. Saving vulnerable Americans — particularly young Americans — from the threat of suicide is something we can all agree is important regardless of the political complexity and bipartisan infighting that plague so many other issues. S. 2680 marks important progress in a unified effort to improve our mental health system. Please join me in supporting S. 2680 this Fall.
Ken Weiner is a Founding Partner and Chief Executive Officer, Eating Recovery Center and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
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