Symptoms of eating disorders, even at subthreshold levels, were highly predictive of suicidality in a national sample of US college students, researchers reported in the International Journal of Eating Disorders.
“Echoing national trends in the high and rising prevalence of mental health problems among college students,” the study team wrote, “this study underscores the population-level burden of both suicidality and eating disorder symptoms, with 1 in 5 students in our sample meeting criteria for indicated eating disorder risk and roughly 1 in 10 reporting having seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.”
The study included mental health survey data for 71,712 randomly selected students from 77 campuses across the United States. Researchers looked at associations of suicidal ideation and attempts with eating disorder symptoms, as measured by the SCOFF screening tool, the Weight Concerns Scale, and binge eating and purging items from the Eating Disorder Examination Questionnaire (EDE-Q). The study controlled for co-occurring symptoms of depression and anxiety.
Students with the highest levels of eating disorder symptoms had 11 times higher odds of attempting suicide, compared with students with no eating disorder symptoms, researchers reported. Students with even subthreshold symptoms had double the odds of suicide attempt, compared with students with no eating disorder symptoms.
The study also found a strong association between suicide attempts and eating disorders that included purging.
At increased risk for co-occurring eating disorders and suicidality were students who were younger, undergraduate, female, overweight or obese, or from sexual minority populations.
“Findings from this study suggest that screening for eating disorders should be a priority within broader suicide prevention efforts,” researchers wrote. “Rather than assessing a single aspect of student mental health (eg, depression), as is common in suicide prevention efforts on college campuses, comprehensive mental health screenings are needed in order to collectively assess risk for suicide, eating disorders, and other prevalent mental health conditions.”
Lipson SK, Sonneville KR. Understanding suicide risk and eating disorders in college student populations: results from a national study. International Journal of Eating Disorders. 2019 October 22;[Epub ahead of print].