Understanding Co-Occurring Disorders

Individuals struggling with an eating disorder are often only partially diagnosed and treated for their problem.  This is due largely to the likelihood of an eating disorder co-occurring with other psychological issues.  A co-occurring disorder, by definition is any two or more behavioral health disorders experienced by the same person at the same time.  If the eating disorder is treated without properly diagnosing every aspect of an individual’s mental health, their treatment can be significantly affected and can lead to relapse.

Disorders That Commonly Co-Occur With Eating Disorders

  1. Anxiety/Depression – The most common psychological problems that co-exist with eating disorders are anxiety and depression.  According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), approximately two-thirds of individuals with an eating disorder, also suffered from anxiety or depression.
  2. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – Most cases of PTSD are the result of being exposed to a traumatic event that makes an individual feel helpless. Childhood sexual abuse is one of the bigger triggers for PTSD to co-occur with an eating disorder. As it pertains to eating disorders, some individuals turn to binge eating to help cope with their PTSD.
  3. Substance Abuse and Alcoholism – According to a study1 published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, about 12-15% of women with bulimia also have an alcohol abuse problem.  An additional 10% of women had a co-occurring drug abuse problem with their eating disorder.
  4. Cutting/Self-Harm – More common among individuals between the ages of 12 and 24, intentional self-harm is a co-occurring mental disorder that sometimes accompanies an eating disorder.  Individuals who start cutting and other forms of self-harm without intent to commit suicide are often times suffering from body image issues and low self-esteem.

Treating the Underlying Causes of Eating Disorders

When an individual suffers from an eating disorder, as well as one or more co-occurring psychological conditions, it is very important to treat each issue.  By addressing only one symptom or disorder, doctors fall short on getting to the root of an individual’s emotional and behavioral problems.  A patient that is only being treated for one of their psychological disorders is more likely to struggle after treatment.  This individual is prone to relapse and more likely to seek treatment again.

Not all individuals with an eating disorder suffer from other co-occurring disorders, but it is important to always be mindful and watch for the signs.  Patients that are given a full assessment of their psychological health are much more likely to get the treatment they need to overcome their disorders.