Eating disorders

Depression, self-harm and suicidal thoughts

This section includes people describing their experiences of depression, self-harming and suicidal thoughts which some people might find upsetting or distressing to read. All the material on this website is intended to support a better understanding of why these unhelpful behaviours in eating disorders happen, how to get help for them and to support genuine recovery from eating disorders.

If you need help visit our resources section 'Mental Health and Wellbeing Resources' for confidential helpline numbers. 

Eating disorders and emotional well-being are closely linked. Difficulty in coping with negative emotions is thought to be a cause of eating disorders by. In order to cope with these emotions, people may start restricting food (limiting what they eat) or bingeing (eating a lot in a short space of time) and purging (getting rid of food from the body). Depression and feeling low are negative emotions particularly linked with eating disorder. It can be difficult for people to know which came first' the eating disorder or low moods.

Emotional well-being and eating disorders
People described a range of emotions over the course of an eating disorder. They had often felt anxious, upset, angry, emotional, moody and irritable. They described feeling sad and “crying all the time” for no obvious reason.

Some had mood swings or had been aggressive and argumentative at times. People felt that their mood was often directly linked to their weight. They weighed themselves regularly and any weight gain could be upsetting. However, being underweight could contribute to depression. When Sara was at a low weight she couldn’t “think straight” and didn’t “view" herself "right”. Some had “no emotions” at all. They felt “numb” particularly while they were underweight and as they started gaining weight, the emotions would surface or ‘bubble over’.
Depression and eating disorders
Many people had experienced depression. A few had been diagnosed and treated for clinical depression and said they had “always” felt that way. It could be hard to separate the eating disorder and depression as they sometimes developed together, and as the eating disorder got worse, the more depressed they felt. Sometimes depression and eating disorders could be traced back to the same cause, such as bullying, an unsettled home life or low self-esteem. Sometimes people only became aware of depression after the eating disorder had been treated, and they were in recovery.
It often took people a long time to realise that the long term low moods could actually be caused by depression; something that could be diagnosed and often treated. Many said it had never occurred to them it could be depression but “just what life is like”, or “what I deserved”.
 
“I got increasingly depressed and I lived with it for a while and thought this was kind of how I deserved to be and how I should be. And this is what life is like. This is how people live, which I just wish I’d realised at that point that it’s not, you know that life doesn’t have to be like that and that I could have actually had some fun.” -Elizabeth

Feeling low, upset and anxious often had a big impact on many aspects of life' people became more isolated, avoided meeting friends, going out or attending school. Emily used to love going out clubbing, shopping and doing sport but when depressed she was constantly “making up excuses” not to go. Elizabeth, who struggled to eat in public or with other people, described how food “alienated” her from others. Feeling low and isolated could also drive people to become more secretive about their eating problems or go on pro-eating disorder forums. David said his moods affected his “whole life” and everything he did. Katherine described the impact of separation anxiety;

“(I was) like a little broken kid, I was just absolutely devastated. I wouldn’t leave the house, I wouldn’t go to school. Going into friends’ houses even just for kind of a couple of hours to go for a tea was a big thing, like it took me ages to recover from it.” -Katherine

Often people had been prescribed antidepressant medicine to treat their depression. Their experiences of both the benefits and side effects of the medication varied widely. Rob said antidepressants “changed my life” and Georgia said they were “the most helpful thing” in recovery. Antidepressants helped people feel more “stable”, and enabled them to “tackle” their problems. Rob said they “alleviated some of the darkness”. For Emily, antidepressants helped her cope better with depression and bulimia nervosa. Laura found that medication did not make a difference and Craig found “no help” from medication and stopped because of side effects such as extreme nightmares. Some had had counselling for depression, whereas others hadn’t had any treatment.

For more about young people's experiences of antidepressants.

Self-harm
People also talked about the link between self-harm, depression and eating disorders. This relationship could be difficult to understand, and people had different reasons for self-harming. It could be a form of punishment, driven by feeling low about or “disliking” oneself. Rob described self-harm as a way of “attacking myself”.
Some people described the eating disorder, particularly restricting and purging, as a form of self-harm. Looking back, Rachel described restricting food as her first form of self-harm. Self-harm and purging were both methods for coping; they became outlets to release negative emotions like guilt, anger or upset. Rob tried to tackle a cycle of emotions through self-harm but said it only offered “a temporary relief”. Felicity felt that the eating disorder and self-harm were just different ways of dealing with the same underlying problem. For Charlotte, the eating disorder and self-harm developed together, both getting more serious and regular. She said after time, self-harm became almost like “a habit”.
Some people first encountered self-harm while being treated in hospital for an eating disorder. It had never occurred to Felicity to self-harm but in hospital she became aware of it and tried to self-harm.
 
You can find more information about young people, depression and self-harm and ways to get better in our 'Depression and low mood' and 'Self-harm:parents experiences' section.
 
Suicidal thoughts
Immediate help is available for anyone with suicidal thoughts. If you need to speak to someone please visit our resources page 'Mental Health and Wellbeing Resources' for a list of free, confidential helplines.  
 
When people had been very ill with an eating disorder and severely depressed, sometimes they could experience self-destructive or suicidal thoughts. People said they “stopped caring” about anything and felt they had “no reason to live”. Some people had been told by health professionals that if they carried on restricting their food intake they would be risking their lives. For some, not living had felt like a "preferable” option at the time.

Experiencing suicidal thoughts could be highly distressing but people often said they wouldn’t act on them but tried to cope with them instead. It was a very different experience to actually trying to harm themselves.
 
We also spoke to a few people who had attempted suicide once or more. For some, realising that they had put their life in danger had encouraged them to accept help. In turn, it could influence family or professionals to take them seriously and offer appropriate treatment. Looking back, people were able to see that their feelings of worthlessness were part of being ill. These feelings reduced as they started to recover.
For more information and support with depression, self-harm and suicidal feelings see our resources section.

Last reviewed July 2015.
Last updated July 2015.

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