During our class talking about eating disorders one of my colleagues had a very interesting question: ‘Is cannibalism an eating disorder?’ This got me curious about whether cannibalism is a part of the mentioned disorders or if it is even considered a mental disorder.

The APA Dictionary of Psychology describes cannibalism as an urge to consume human flesh, in some cases in association with schizophrenia or other mental conditions such as windigo psychosis (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Based on this definition, I would imagine categorizing cannibalism under the psychopathology of impulses, more specifically eating disorders as it involves eating, but I had to investigate more. After doing some research, I came to realize that cannibalism is not even mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The main reason for not including it is believed to be its rareness, as it is even hard to find case studies for that matter. 

In the past and in very rare cases till present days, cannibalism was a part of rituals or was practised because of the scarcity of any other sources of nutrition. In other cases it is related to psychiatric disturbances and possibly some diagnosed mental disorder such as schizophrenia. The underlying causes for developing this unusual impulse is hypothesized to come from early traumas, more in particular from the relationship with the mother.

Turn on the Eating | Psychology Today

In 2015 a study investigated 345 cases of serial killers from which 31 engaged in cannibalism. Furthermore, 18 of these criminals also had sexual intercourse with their victim, and as the researchers concluded, these individuals were the most deviant. Moreover, the criminals engaging in cannibalism were more often coming from a harsher background, meaning for example physical abuse in childhood, suicides in the family or a psychiatric disturbance of the mother. According to the analysis serial killers involved in cannibalism were more brutal in general, often raping their victims, using them as sex slaves, practising bizarre sexual intercourses, torturing or mutilating them. This study is exceptional, because it involves a larger sample, before mostly case studies were published only (Lester et al., 2015).


American Psychological Association. (n.d.). cannibalism – APA Dictionary of Psychology. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved December 20, 2021, from

Lester, D., White, J., & Giordano, B. (2015). Cannibalism. OMEGA—Journal of Death and Dying, 70(4), 428-435.

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