Pica is when people eat things that are not food. Children do this all the time, but there’s more to pica than that most basic of definitions. Classified under “Feeding and Eating Disorders” in the APA’s DSM 5, pica is not just an isolated event. It’s persistent eating of nonfood items over a period of at least one month. While this may sound fairly harmless if you’re thinking about toenails and pencil shavings, consider some of the things a person that could eat that would make that behavior rise to the level of clinically significant behavior.
In theory, any nonfood item is fair game. Crayons, carpet, rocks, Pine-Sol, blood, human or animal waste – the list of possible items is literally endless. An actual diagnosis of pica precludes the possibility of other issues such as a developmental disability and assumes that the practice exists outside the scope of cultural and societal norms. It does usually occur in children and while the condition may only last for a few months, both long and short term medical concerns tend to accompany it. There is, after all, a reason why humans don’t eat things that aren’t food. At best, a foreign object such as a rock or a marble will cause digestion problems. At worst, any number of household items can kill you.
Perhaps the only thing more shocking than pica is the profound lack of research on it. Nobody is entirely sure why it happens. Theories abound, one being that it is caused by a mineral deficiency. Other theories point to severe anxiety and trauma. As for treatment, SSRIs have proven to be effective and CBT can be, too, but neither one of these is geared towards children. While some children are prescribed psychotropic medications and some can benefit from CBT, there is no one way to treat it. It is also not a rare disorder. In fact, while pica has a relatively benign sounding name, it actually has several sub categories, including self-cannibalism, which is exactly as awful as it sounds.
If you or someone you know suffers from pica, they need to be evaluated by a licensed medical professional immediately, as there is no telling what the person will or not put in their mouth. This is an issue that requires medical intervention. Despite its small name, it has long and far reaching implications.
Have you had an experience with pica? I'd like to here from you in the comments below. Thank you!