Eating disorders are incredibly complex. They usually don’t have a single cause nor do they have a straightforward recovery. Sadly, eating disorders are still so misunderstood in society. We’ve come so far in our understanding of eating disorders, but there are myths that still persist.
If you’ve ever had someone close to you experience an eating disorder, you’ll know how challenging it can be.
But did you know, many people experiencing an eating disorder also experience other mental health challenges? Research suggests that between 55% and 97% of people with an eating disorder will also have another psychiatric or mental illness diagnosis. Then there’s the complications of medical conditions that can often be the consequence of eating disorders.
Mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder and other mood disorders are more common than you think…and add extra layers of complexity to an already difficult illness.
What is ‘comorbidity’ anyway?
You might hear the term ‘comorbidity’ thrown around by clinicians. What is it? Well, it’s the medical term for the co-occurrence of two or more physical or mental health problems. Here at EDFA, we prefer the term ‘co-existing’ conditions.
A co-existing mental health diagnosis can begin around the same time as an eating disorder, it can precede it, or it can emerge after the eating disorder has already begun.
In supporting your loved one with an eating disorder, education is critical so you can best advocate for their needs. We look at the common eating disorder co-existing conditions that you may see in your loved one.
Eating disorders and mental illness
Mood disorders, such as depression and eating disorders, are the most common co-existing mental health conditions.
Additionally, more than 50% of people will have an eating disorder and anxiety. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) are also common with eating disorders.
Eating disorders themselves are mental illnesses. Often, the symptoms of an eating disorder may mirror or overlap with those of other psychiatric conditions, such as fatigue, insomnia or sadness. As a loved one, you may notice the signs of the other mental illnesses before you recognise that these are also possible signs of an eating disorder.
Recovery from eating disorders is challenging in its own right. The added complexity of co-existing conditions presents even more mountains to climb along the journey. This is why a holistic approach by a treatment team is so important to address the underlying causes and co-existing conditions that can hinder recovery.
If your loved one does have an eating disorder and co-existing mental illnesses, know that this is common. And help is available to treat the eating disorder alongside the other conditions.
Eating disorders and other medical conditions
While eating disorders are mental illnesses, they can also take a heavy toll on the body. Some of the medical conditions that co-exist or stem from eating disorders can be very serious and even life threatening.
Eating disorders are commonly associated with starvation, binge eating and purging. All of these may have severe consequences for a person’s cardiovascular, endocrine, gastrointestinal and neurological health. This may lead to nutritional deficiencies, drastic changes in blood pressure, irregular heartbeats, inflammation of the pancreas, bowel or intestinal obstructions, fainting, and menstrual changes, among many others.
This list isn’t to scare you. But as you support your loved one through their eating disorder recovery, it’s important that you’re aware of the complete picture. And co-existing conditions are a very real and serious part of that picture. With this in mind, you can support your loved one, whether it’s your child, your partner, your friend or your parent, as their advocate.
Taking each day one step at a time
Eating Disorders Families Australia (EDFA) was founded by a group of parents and family members of people with eating disorders. We wanted to give others the support we wish we had when our loved ones were going through eating disorder recovery. Learn more about EDFA and our mission.
Whether you suspect your loved one may have an eating disorder or you’re well along the journey of their treatment and recovery, we’re here to help. From eating disorder co-existing conditions to things every parent needs to know, we have resources and support available to help you help your loved one.