AAP FactCheck

Restoring confidence in public statements by independently testing and verifying the facts

Do eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness?

By Holly Nott

The Statement

“They have the highest fatality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and the system wasn’t recognising it.”

Butterfly Foundation chief executive Christine Morgan discussing mortality rates for people with eating disorders. December 9, 2018.

The Analysis

When the federal government significantly expanded the medicare-funded treatments available to people suffering eating disorders, support group The Butterfly Foundation welcomed the move, pointing out that eating disorders claimed more lives than any other psychiatric illness. [1]

AAP FactCheck has examined the contention that eating disorders are the most deadly psychiatric disorder.

Firstly, the term psychiatric disorder is interchangeable with mental disorder. The two key diagnostic reference manuals used by medical professionals in Australia - the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems [2] - both classify eating disorders as mental disorders, and both specifically name anorexia nervosa in this category, among other eating disorders. It’s relevant to note that harmful use of, and dependence upon, psychoactive substances are also classified as mental disorders [3].

In 2014, the results of a meta‐review (or review of systematic reviews) exploring the risks of mortality from major mental disorders were published. The Risks of All‐Cause and Suicide Mortality in Mental Disorders meta-review covered 407 relevant reviews, with data on more than 1.7 million patients and in excess of 250,000 deaths. It concluded: “Those with the highest all‐cause mortality ratios were substance use disorders and anorexia nervosa.” [4].

This followed the results of a 1998 study, Excess Mortality of Mental Disorder [5], which also found the “highest risks of premature death, from both natural and unnatural causes, are for substance abuse and eating disorders.”

In summary, it is AAP FactCheck’s position that while Butterfly Foundation chief executive Christine Morgan’s statement was not misrepresentative, it would have been more accurate to say eating disorders have the “joint highest” mortality rate of any mental disorder.

The Verdict

Mostly True – Mostly accurate, but there is a minor error or problem.

The References

  1. Original claim as published in News Corp’s sunday mastheads. https://www.couriermail.com.au/news/queensland/medicare-move-to-add-psychological-services-funding-for-treatment-of-eating-disorders-welcomed-by-butterfly-foundation/news-story/261283416f1f41d7bc846338a8892a61
  2. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision – regarding eating disorders. https://icd.who.int/browse10/2010/en#/F50-F59
  3. International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision – regarding psychoactive substances. https://icd.who.int/browse10/2010/en#/F10-F19
  4. Risks of All‐Cause and Suicide Mortality in Mental Disorders: a meta‐review by Edward Chesney, Guy M Goodwin and Seena Fazel. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wps.20128
  5. Excess Mortality of Mental Disorder. By Clare Harris and Brian Barraclough https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/the-british-journal-of-psychiatry/article/excess-mortality-of-mental-disorder/45A4F4869523062F276342D48914BB53
  6. National Eating Disorders Collaboration – definitions and mortality statistics. https://www.nedc.com.au/eating-disorders/eating-disorders-explained/something/whats-an-eating-disorder/

Revision History

  • First published December 13, 2018 12:45 AEDT