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Is Bulimia a Mental Illness?

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Bulimia is a complex, potentially life-threatening condition. It is typically described as an eating disorder – but is bulimia a mental illness, too?

If you or a loved one is suffering with an eating disorder, call Peachtree Recovery Solutions. Our eating disorder treatment in Atlanta can help you recover from the devastating effects of an eating disorder. Call us at 678-325-7250 or verify your insurance now.

What Is Bulimia?

Before we address the question, Is bulimia a mental illness, let’s take a moment to review some basic facts about this condition.

Bulimia (which is also sometimes called bulimia nervosa) is a type of eating disorder that is characterized by eating binges and compensatory behaviors:

  • Eating binges are brief periods of time during which a person eats a large amount of food, often while feeling that they are unable to control how much or how quickly they are eating. After a binge, people often feel shame, guilt, or even self-loathing.

  • Compensatory behaviors are dangerous activities that a person undertakes in order to prevent weight gain as a result of their eating binges. Common compensatory behaviors include self-induced vomiting, laxative misuse, fasting, and exercising excessively.

Also, as established in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), another criteria for bulimia is an overemphasis on one’s body size and weight. For those who have this condition, these factors will have an outsized influence on their self-esteem.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the lifetime prevalence of bulimia among adults in the United States is 1%. With a current US adult population of about 258 million, this means that about 2.5 million adults will develop this disorder at some point in their lifetime.

You are not alone. You deserve to get help.

Peachtree Recovery Solutions is an industry leader in outpatient substance abuse treatment. Our team of top medical experts specialize in dual diagnosis treatment and are committed to ensuring that each patient is treated as an individual. Call us today, we’re available 24/7.

Is Bulimia a Mental Illness?

Now that we’ve established the general criteria for a diagnosis of bulimia, let’s address the question at the top of this post: Is bulimia a mental illness?

The short answer is yes, bulimia is a mental illness.

The longer answer is that bulimia can be classified in a variety of ways. For example, as we noted in the previous section, bulimia is an eating disorder. Eating disorders are often included in the category of behavioral health disorders, a group that also includes addiction.

It’s important to understand that these are not mutually exclusive categories: 

  • The category of mental health disorders, or mental illnesses, typically includes conditions that affect how a person thinks or feels (such as anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder).

  • The term “behavioral health” is usually applied to conditions that impact how a person acts (such as eating disorders, drug addictions, and compulsive gambling).

  • Eating disorders are a specific type of behavioral health disorder that involve a person’s relationship with food.

However, mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression can cause significant changes in a person’s behavior. And behavioral health disorders such as addiction or bulimia typically involve emotional challenges such as shame, guilt, and low self-esteem. So it’s not uncommon for one type of disorder to be correctly placed in multiple categories.

In the case of bulimia, this means that the following are all true:

  • Is bulimia a mental illness? Yes. 
  • Is bulimia an eating disorder? Yes. 
  • Is bulimia a behavioral health disorder? Yes.

Signs & Symptoms of Bulimia

Many people who develop bulimia go to great lengths to hide their behaviors. However, over time, it can be difficult to maintain this level of deceit. If you suspect that someone you care about has bulimia, keep an eye out for signs such as these:

  • They prefer to eat alone, and may even refuse to eat in the presence of others.
  • If they do eat with others, they often excuse themselves immediately after the meal has concluded.
  • They usually wear baggy or shapeless clothing (which can be an attempt to hide changes in their weight).
  • They frequently make negative comments about themselves or others based on weight, body shape, and size.
  • Their menstrual cycle has been disrupted or has stopped completely.
  • They have persistent bad breath and/or dental problems as a result of frequent vomiting.
  • They often feel weak or exhausted.
  • They possess laxatives or diuretics for no apparent reason.
  • They exercise past the point of exhaustion, often immediately after eating.
  • They have begun to withdraw from friends and family members.
  • They have minimized or ended their participation in hobbies, clubs, or other activities that used to be important to them.

While these signs could indicate that someone is in crisis, the only way to be certain if a person has bulimia or another eating disorder is for them to be assessed by a qualified healthcare provider. Receiving an accurate diagnosis can be an important step on the path toward treatment and improved health.

How to Help a Loved One Who Has Bulimia

If someone that you care about has been exhibiting the signs and symptoms of bulimia, it’s common to be concerned for their well-being and confused about how you can help.

Bulimia is a serious mental illness that, if left untreated, can have a catastrophic effect on a person’s life. Your continued love and support can be extremely important to your friend or family member – but good wishes and kind gestures alone are not enough to protect the health of someone who has bulimia.

The best way to help a loved one who has bulimia is to convince them to seek appropriate treatment. If they have already agreed to seek professional care, you may be able to help them identify the provider that’s best for them. You may also help with logistical matters such as transportation or childcare, which can free your loved one to focus on their health.

If your loved one’s treatment program includes family therapy or related services, your participation in these activities can be an excellent way to learn how to best support them during and after their time in treatment. Taking part in family-oriented sessions can also be a clear signal to your loved one that you care about them and that you want to continue to be a positive presence in their life.

Begin Eating Disorder Treatment in Atlanta Today

Peachtree Recovery Solutions is a valued provider of personalized outpatient care for adults who have been struggling with bulimia and other eating disorders. 

Features of treatment at our center in Atlanta include a partial hospitalization program (PHP), an intensive outpatient program (IOP) with both day and evening sessions, outpatient rehab, and gender-specific programming for both men and women.

In each of these programs, you can receive customized services from a team of highly skilled professionals. These dedicated caregivers will take the time to get to know you as a unique individual, so that they can be sure we’re providing you with the focused care that meets your specific needs. We understand that bulimia can affect different people in different ways, and we are committed to providing each of our patients with a truly personalized experience while they’re in our care.

To learn more about how we can help you or someone in your family, or to schedule a free assessment, please visit our Admissions page or call our center today.