Are you worried about someone you know?
If you’re concerned that a family member or friend might have an eating disorder, it can be difficult to raise the issue with them. You may worry you’ll say the wrong thing, that it’s none of your business, or that you’re insulting the person. Remember eating disorders are serious mental illnesses and are not the sufferer’s fault.
Often people with eating disorders deny or don’t realise there’s a problem, but that doesn’t mean they’re not ill. Eating disorders thrive on secrecy, and countless people who are in recovery agree that breaking the silence is the right thing to do, even if they didn’t feel that way at the time. The sooner someone can get treatment, the greater their chance of a full and sustained recovery.
Here are some things you can do when talking to someone you’re worried about:
- Think about what you want to say and make sure you feel informed. You can read about the symptoms of eating disorders here. You could also take a look at our booklet: “Eating disorders: a guide for friends and family.”
- Choose a place where you both feel safe and won’t be disturbed. If you’re one of several people who have felt concerned, don’t talk to the person together as they may feel you’re ambushing them. Decide who they are most likely to open up to.
- Choose a time when neither of you feels angry or upset. Avoid any time just before or after meals.
- Have some information with you that you can refer to if you’re able to. You could share it with them, or leave it with them to look at by themselves.
- Try not to centre the conversation around food and/or weight. While it may be necessary to bring this up to explain why you’re worried, these may be things they’re particularly sensitive about. At their roots, eating disorders are about what the person is feeling rather than how they’re treating food.
- Mention things that have concerned you, but try to avoid listing too many things as they may feel like they have been “watched”.
- Try not to back them into a corner or use language that could feel accusatory. “I wondered if you’d like to talk about how you’re feeling” is a gentler approach than “You need to get help”, for example.
- They may be angry and defensive. Try to avoid getting angry in response, and don’t be disheartened or put off. Reassure them that you’ll be there when they’re ready, and that your concern is their wellbeing.
- Don’t wait too long before approaching them again. It might feel even harder than the first conversation, especially if they didn’t react well, but if you’re still worried, keeping quiet about it won’t help. Remember, eating disorders thrive on secrecy.
- If they acknowledge that they need help, encourage them to seek it as quickly as possible. Offer to go with them to the GP if they would find that helpful.
- If they tell you there’s nothing wrong, even if they seem convincing, keep an eye on them and keep in mind that they may be ill even if they don’t realise it. Denial that there’s a problem is common – in the case of anorexia, it’s considered a symptom of the illness. You were worried for a reason, so trust your judgment.
- If you need some support or have unanswered questions, call our Helpline on 0808 801 0677, or our Youthline on 0808 801 0711.
Below are some specific situations that you might encounter or be worried about during conversations with someone who has an eating disorder, and guidance about how to respond in a positive and encouraging way.
What if someone has told me they think they have an eating disorder?
If this is the first time you’ve needed to read about eating disorders, remember they are treatable illnesses, and full recovery is possible. The fact that the person has come to you suggests they would like to get better.
However, they have a much higher chance of recovery if they can get help quickly. They may have been experiencing symptoms for some time before speaking to you, so the sooner they can get treatment, the better. If there are other people they want to tell first, ask if there’s a way you can support them to do that.
Encourage the person to make an appointment with their GP. You could offer to go with them so they’re not alone. They may also find our “First Steps” GP guide helpful – this is intended to help people with eating disorders get a referral to a specialist from their GP. It contains guidance for the person who’s ill, anyone supporting them at the appointment, and the GP.
If you hadn’t suspected the person was ill, try not to blame yourself – this isn’t what the person you’re supporting needs. The best thing you can do now is take their concerns seriously, listen to what they have to tell you, and ask what you can do to help them get better.
If you’re feeling stuck as to how best to help, reading more about eating disorders and what the person you know might be going through is a good start. You can find out more here.
What if I say the wrong thing?
Not knowing the right thing to say to someone with an eating disorder can be daunting, and sometimes fear of saying something that may be accidentally upsetting can cause people to pull away and not say anything. It’s important not to do this – eating disorders can be very isolating, and the person will need support. If you aren’t sure what to say, just being there to listen makes a big difference.
While every person is different, there are ways you can try to keep conversations positive:
- Try to avoid saying things that could feel critical, accusatory, or dismissive.
- Asking how the person is feeling, rather than questions about eating or weight changes, is often more productive – it gives them the opportunity to talk about the feelings behind the eating disorder without making them feel their eating habits are being scrutinised.
- Remember comments on appearance that you mean to be complimentary can sometimes be interpreted negatively – for example, “You’re looking well” may sound like a comment on weight. Compliments on things other than appearance can help the person feel valued and is less likely to cause these worries.
- If the person is open to having conversations about their illness, you could talk to them about how those conversations can be useful, and invite them to let you know if you’ve said something that they don’t find helpful.
What if the person I’m worried about reacts negatively when I raise my concerns, or says they’re not ill?
It’s possible they don’t know they’re ill. Especially if they’ve been experiencing symptoms for a while, these symptoms have had time to become the person’s norm, which can make them difficult to recognise as part of an illness. Continued honest and open conversations with the person about your concerns, at a time when you have privacy and are feeling calm, can encourage them to realise that they need help.
If the person you’re worried about does respond negatively:
- Try not to get angry or upset in response – this can feel like an attack, and it may add to the feelings of guilt and shame that those suffering from eating disorders may already be experiencing.
- Be gentle but firm, and clear that the reason you’ve raised this is not to criticise – it’s that you’re concerned and care for them.
- Try to give it time and encourage them to talk about what they’re experiencing. However, if you don’t feel the conversation can continue productively, don’t force it.
- You could leave them with information about Beat’s website and Helpline, giving them the opportunity to see if any of this information is relatable to their experience.
- Think about whether there’s anything you can learn from the conversation. Was there anything specific that the person found upsetting? Could you approach it differently?
- Let them know that they can talk to you about any difficulties they’re facing at any time, and try to raise the issue again as soon as possible.
What if the person I’m worried about doesn’t feel able to go to the doctor?
There are many reasons someone might feel unable to seek treatment. For example, it can be difficult to give up what may be a way of coping, the illness can feel all-encompassing and make it hard to think about life beyond it, feelings of shame and low self-esteem can make people feel they don’t deserve help, and uncertainty about what treatment consists of can make people feel anxious.
- It can be helpful to explore their reason for not seeking treatment further in a calm and supportive manner.
- Reassure them that you want to see them get better and that you’re here to support them through treatment – they don’t have to do it alone.
- You could make an appointment with the GP for them, and offer to go with them so that you can speak on their behalf if they’d find it helpful.
- You could help them learn more about what treatment might involve by showing them our help and treatment page, which explains the different types of help available.
- Providing details about our message boards and online support groups can also be beneficial, as they can hear from others who are in a similar position and can provide them with reassurance and guidance.
What if I’m supporting someone and they don’t feel their treatment is working, or don’t feel they want to carry on with treatment?
If the person you’re supporting is not finding their treatment effective, an open conversation with them could help them think about ways their treatment could better meet their needs. Encourage them to talk with the team delivering their treatment, and offer to go with them to talk about their options if they’d find that useful.
Sometimes the issue isn’t with the type of treatment they’re having, but that they’re struggling with the idea of recovery. Eating disorders are not, at their root, about food or weight; they are about feelings. For many people the eating disorder is a means of coping or feeling in control, and giving up something that may feel familiar and safe can be very challenging. Try to help the person explore these conflicted feelings and think about their motivations to recover. Encourage them to keep speaking to people about what they’re experiencing, rather than trying to deal with it on their own.
Who can I talk to about my own experiences?
Eating disorders can have a serious impact not only on the person suffering but the people around them too. If you’re feeling isolated or worried, our support services are here for you as well – call our Helpline or join one of our support groups.
Issue date: February 2017 Review date: February 2020 Version 1.0
Sources used to create this information are available by contacting Beat. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.