Research Explores Link Between Anorexia and Suicide
> 3/3/2008 1:54:41 PM

Anorexia has been called the deadliest of psychiatric disorders, both because of the serious health problems created by starvation and because of the high suicide rate associated with the disorder. In analyzing the suicide rate among this group, some have theorized that, because starvation compromises their overall health, anorexics are more likely to die from suicide attempts that would not kill healthy individuals. New research, however, is challenging this idea. One study, which appears in the Journal of Affective Disorders, builds on a foundation provided by previous research, showing that some anorexics who commit suicide take actions to ensure that they will die.

To study suicide among individuals with anorexia, researchers from the University of Vermont examined the histories of nine anorexic women from Boston and Germany who had committed suicide. They found that most of these women ended their lives in extreme and violent ways, such as hanging themselves or jumping in front of a train. In addition, many also carried out these acts in isolated areas, perhaps to prevent others from rescuing them. These actions, according to the researchers, indicate a deeply-felt desire to die and contradict the theory that anorexics are simply more likely to die from any suicide attempt. As lead author Jill Holm-Denoma explained in discussing her research with Time Magazine, "The methods that they chose could have killed anyone."

The study is limited by its non-experimental design and does not reflect the broader population of anorexic individuals. In addition, all nine women had sought treatment in a hospital, and the researchers surmise that anorexics who seek treatment may have a more severe form of the condition. This may be a factor in why most of them used particularly lethal methods in taking their own lives. Prior work by Dr. Thomas Joiner, who was also one of this study's authors, may also help explain the association between anorexia and violent suicide. He has theorized that people who are often exposed to suffering or who engage in self-harm become desensitized to the experience and are more capable of harming themselves in severe ways. Anorexia, because it is a condition defined by self-harm, may facilitate very lethal methods of suicide.

Despite its flaws, this research adds to previous findings on the high rate of suicide among anorexics. In 2003, a Harvard University study demonstrated the importance of understanding and studying the connection between eating disorders and suicide. From 1987 to 1991, researchers recruited 246 individuals with anorexia or bulimia and followed them until 1998. For individuals with an eating disorder, the chance of dying was close to 12 times that of individuals without eating disorders, while the rate of suicide was roughly 57 times what would be expected for a healthy population of the same age and gender.

Together, these findings illustrate how crucial treatment can be to individuals struggling with an eating disorder. Even if their weight has been stabilized, these individuals are still at risk for suicide, and continued treatment is necessary to address the eating disorder as well as any other accompanying physical or psychiatric conditions.

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