Anyone who has cared for a loved one with an eating disorder is well aware of the stress and psychological toll involved. It’s no surprise that caregivers experience depression and anxiety at higher rates compared to the general population. A new study investigated several specific factors to pinpoint exactly which ones predict worsened depression and anxiety.
The study, released online last week, was conducted by researchers in Spain following 246 eating disorder caregivers over one year. Caregivers included parents, partners, or other relatives of adults and older adolescents who were in treatment for a range of eating disorders.
Over the course of 1 year, there was barely any change in the considerable distress among caregivers. The prevalence of anxiety among caregivers was more than 3 times higher that of the general community and the prevalence of depression was more than 6 times higher.
Furthermore, eating disorder caregivers were suffering as much or more than caregivers of other illnesses including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
When considering what factors predicted general anxiety and depression, gender and education played a role. Mothers tended to report more anxiety than fathers and people with less education reported more depression than those with higher education.
Which factors contributed to improved depression and anxiety over the course of 1 year? Caregivers of patients with restrictive eating disorders (e.g. most forms of anorexia) were more likely to improve compared to purging-type eating disorders (e.g. most forms of bulimia). The researchers speculate that this may be because patients who purge tend to experience a more severe illness long-term. Many might argue against that reasoning. It would have been helpful to have more information about the two groups of eating disorder patients that the researchers created to make this comparison.
Regardless of the different factors predicting anxiety and depression, it’s clear that caregivers are suffering and that this lasts over time. If we followed the study’s group of caregivers for several years, we may find they still experience significant anxiety and depression (though hopefully with less intensity). Therapy and support groups are not just important for caregivers when their loved ones begin treatment, but well after that point.
Dr. Gupta is a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University and provides individual therapy at Tribeca Psychology