The strange connection between eating disorders and criminal behavior

A new study has found a surprising connection between eating disorders and crime: According to findings published on Aug. 9 in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, women who have been diagnosed with an eating disorder are more likely than other women to be convicted of theft, as well as other crimes.

International researchers analyzed the data of approximately 960,000 females and discovered that the incidences of theft were 12 percent among those with anorexia nervosa and 18 percent among females with bulimia nervosa, compared with 5 percent in women without eating disorders. As for women who have committed other types of crimes, 7 percent suffered from anorexia nervosa and 13 percent had bulimia nervosa, while 6 percent of the women did not have an eating disorder.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first study to draw similar conclusions. Earlier in 2017, medical investigators from Kyoto University in Japan asked 80 women from eating disorder clinics to complete anonymous questionnaires that probed their behaviors, along with their demographics. Nearly 38 percent of the women reported a history of shoplifting and about 16 percent reported the desire to do so. The authors stated that the severity of an eating disorder combined with having a lower socioeconomic status appeared to have “a serious impact on shoplifting behavior.”

Another study conducted in Japan focused on incarcerated women with eating disorders, since the number of female offenders with this illness has grown annually over the last 15 years. The most common conviction resulting in imprisonment: shoplifting (63 percent), followed by drug offenses (24 percent).

“While shoplifting is of concern in relation to eating disorders, a causal relationship remains unclear,” wrote the study authors from Nippon Medical School and Kyoto University. And while the inmates in the shoplifting category did not have histories of antisocial or impulsive behaviors — such as drug abuse, sexual deviation, and self-injury — or other criminal activity, the researchers surmised that “shoplifting appears to be an obsessive-compulsive behavior deeply rooted in the psychopathology of severe eating disorder patients.”

The investigators from this latest analysis agree that further research is necessary in order to determine the possible factors behind this association, which can eventually lead to more specialized and effective treatment methods.

“Our results highlight forensic issues as an adversity associated with eating disorders,” stated lead study author Shuyang Yao in a press release. “Criminal convictions can compound disease burden and complicate treatment. Clinicians should be sure to conduct routine reviews of criminal history during assessments for eating disorders.”

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