Is Bulimia Considered A Mental Illness?

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Bulimia nervosa is an eating disorder that affects the mind, body, and soul while trapping the person into a cycle of shame and doubt. Bulimia begins to occupy the mind with constant thoughts surrounding the perfect self image and the ideal body weight. These thoughts begin to force suffering individuals into thinking that they are not good enough and that they need to take drastic actions to change how they look. The National Institute of Mental Health states that “eating disorders, although commonly viewed as a lifestyle choice, are serious and often fatal illnesses that cause severe disturbances to a person’s eating behaviors.”

The National Alliance on Mental Illness defines mental illness as “a condition that affects a person’s thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone’s ability to relate to others and function each day.” Because the symptoms and causes of bulimia are rooted in genetic and environmental factors which can affect a person’s mental, emotional, and physical state, bulimia is considered a mental illness.

Bulimia is an extremely debilitating disorder if gone unrecognized and untreated. Understanding the depths of bulimia and how it can be considered a mental illness is vital in getting the proper treatment that you or a loved one deserves in order to lead a healthy life again.

What is bulimia?

Bulimia nervosa is often diagnosed for individuals who experience episodes of eating and then purge, or vomit, the food afterwards. Individuals may also use laxatives or may excessively exercise in a very unhealthy manner. Trying to reverse the caloric intake may be caused by feelings of guilt for eating too much food or a large amount of unhealthy food.

In most bulimic cases, individuals are typically worried about their weight or self-image and may ultimately struggle with losing weight. [1] The struggle with losing weight and meeting societal and peer expectations can become an overwhelming burden and can lead to destructive behaviors.

Unlike individuals diagnosed with anorexia, those diagnosed with bulimia nervosa typically have a normal weight or are slightly overweight. [2] Feelings of shame and guilt about food begin to overpower individuals and consequently, they ultimately engage in impulsive and destructive eating behaviors, such as purging.

Bulimia and mental illness

Eating disorders, such as bulimia nervosa, are considered mental illnesses because they affect a person’s psychological and physical well-being and if not treated, can be fatal. Dr. Tom Insel, former Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, has stated that “recent research on eating disorders supports the proposition that these are serious mental disorders with significant morbidity and mortality.”[3]

Bulimia hinders a person’s mental, emotional, social, and physical well-being. The destructive thoughts and actions associated with bulimia may inhibit individuals from leading a healthy, balanced, and productive life. Suffering individuals will exhibit hidden purging habits or will disclose the use of laxatives. They may withdraw from previously enjoyed activities and become obsessive over food and their weight. Individuals become consumed with their caloric intake and exercise regimes and it ultimately causes high levels of anxiety or intense levels of guilt and shame. These high levels of stress and anxiety can negatively impact a person’s ability to function in life’s daily activities in a normal and healthy manner.

Many individuals suffering from bulimia engage in purging episodes and have low self-esteem because they may be trying to control or battle difficult moments in their everyday lives.[4] Feelings of self-doubt and questions of self-worth impact the individual’s ability to maintain a healthy state of mind and body.

Causes of bulimia

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, bulimia is caused by a number of different factors that influence a person’s eating behaviors and predisposition towards the disorder.

Genetic factors. If individuals have a family history of eating disorders amongst first degree relatives, such as parents or siblings, it increases the likelihood that they will also be diagnosed with an eating disorder. In fact, it has been medically proven that eating disorders, like other psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, have a strong genetic and biological component.[5]

Environmental factors. Environmental factors such as peer pressure, societal expectations, and media influences cloud the mind and become the critical voice inside of the individual’s head. The obsession over striving to be thin can be incredibly overwhelming and can cause individuals to take drastic measures to fit in and feel accepted. Additionally, environmental stressors from home, work, or relationships can cause unwanted levels of stress and anxiety and can lead individuals to harm their mental and physical state of being.

The psychological and physical consequences of bulimia ultimately alter the person’s emotional health and drive individuals to become extremely impulsive and irrational in their thoughts and behaviors.

Co-occurring disorders

In addition to bulimia being considered a mental illness, it can also occur alongside other psychological disorders. In fact, over half of all bulimic patients have a co-occurring diagnosis. This refers to individuals who are diagnosed with an eating disorder and are also diagnosed with a psychological disorder, such as anxiety, depression, or obsessive compulsive disorder.

Co-occurring disorders among patients suffering from bulimia are very common and must be recognized and treated. For example, more than half of all bulimic patients suffer from anxiety.[6] The obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors associated with caloric intake leads to an uncontrollable amount of worry and fear. This causes high levels of anxiety about gaining weight among patients suffering from bulimia nervosa.

Treatment for bulimia and mental illness

Whether you or someone you love is suffering from bulimia, be proactive and seek treatment. The mental and physical consequences of bulimia nervosa can ultimately be prevented if individuals understand that bulimia is a serious mental illness that can be defeated through psychotherapy techniques such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Highly trained Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists are equipped in helping individuals establish coping mechanisms, meal plans, and self-soothing strategies to combat their disorder and lead a healthy life again.

Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists can help you or someone you love overcome bulimia nervosa or co-occurring disorder. They are professionally certified in implementing researched based psychotherapy techniques to improve the quality of life of all individuals suffering from bulimia nervosa. Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists will not only improve the physical health of individuals who are suffering, but will also provide patients with the skills needed to cultivate self-compassion and live a healthy life.

Greta Gleissner is the Founder of Eating Disorder Recovery Specialists, a nationwide network of eating disorder treatment specialists that provide meal coaching and recovery skills such as CBT, DBT, ACT, MI, etc. EDRS works alongside treatment programs, teams and families to provide transitional aftercare support for post-residential treatment clients.








If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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