Friends and family are often key to encouraging someone with an eating disorder to seek help. Whether the eating disorder sufferer is unaware that there is a problem, they are afraid or ashamed to seek help, or they are ambivalent about giving up eating disorder behaviors, many sufferers find it difficult to seek help for their eating disorder. Family and friends can play an important role in identifying worrying symptoms to the sufferer and encouraging them to seek help.
Raising concerns about the presence of an eating disorder
It’s not always easy to discuss eating disorders, especially with someone you are close to. However, many individuals now in recovery from an eating disorder say the support of family and friends was crucial to them getting well.
- Set a private time and place to talk. No one wants to have personal issues dissected in front of a crowd, so make sure you find a time and place where you will have time to discuss your concerns without being rushed or in front of a crowd.
- Use “I” statements. Focus on behaviors that you have personally observed, such as “I have noticed that you aren’t eating dinner with us anymore,” or “I am worried about how frequently you are going to the gym.” It’s easy to sound accusatory (“You’re not eating! You’re exercising too much!”), which can cause a person to feel defensive. Instead, stick to pointing out what you’ve observed. If you can, also point out behaviors not related to eating and weight, which may be easier for the person to see and accept.
- Rehearse what you want to say. This may help reduce your anxiety and clarify exactly what you want to say. Other people have found writing out their main points helpful.
- Stick to the facts. Raising concerns about a potential eating disorder can bring up lots of emotions, and it’s important not to let those run the show. Instead, talk about behaviors and changes you have observed and calmly point out why you are concerned (“I have seen you run to the bathroom after meals and that makes me worried you might be making yourself throw up.”).
- Remove potential stigma. Remind your loved one that there’s no shame in admitting you struggle with an eating disorder or other mental health problem. Lots of people will be diagnosed with these issues during their lifetimes, and many will recover.
- Avoid overly simplistic solutions. Being told “Just stop” or “Just eat” isn’t helpful. It can leave the sufferer feeling frustrated, defensive, and misunderstood.
- Encourage them to seek professional help. Many eating disorder sufferers require professional help in order to get better. Offer to help the sufferer find a physician or therapist if they don’t have one, or attend an appointment where the eating disorder is discussed. Getting timely, effective treatment dramatically increases a person’s chances for recovery.
- Be prepared for negative reactions. Some eating disorder sufferers are glad that someone has noticed they are struggling. Others respond differently. Some may become angry and hostile, insisting that you are the one with the problem. Others may brush off your concerns or minimize potential dangers. Both of these responses are normal. Reiterate your concerns, let them know you care, and leave the conversation open.
Even if you don’t feel the discussion was well-received or that you got through to your loved one, don’t despair. You shared your concern and let them know that you care and you are there for them. You may also have planted a seed that they should seek help. The seed may not take root immediately, but over time, the concern of friends and family can help move an individual towards recovery.
Note: If you suspect a medical or psychiatric emergency, such as threats of suicide or medical complications from eating disorder behaviors (such as fainting, heart arrhythmias, or seizures), seek medical attention or call 911 immediately.