Caring for someone who has been diagnosed with an eating disorder can feel overwhelming and exhausting. Carers often report that supporting their loved one affects their own physical and mental health. It is therefore important that you have your own support network and positive coping mechanisms. Where possible, ensure you have time away from your loved one to do things you enjoy and gain support from others – carers sometimes say they feel this is selfish, but in fact it will strengthen you and help you get through the difficult times.
Every carer’s experience of supporting their loved one is individual, as is the way they manage their own wellbeing. The following ideas have been suggested by other carers who have supported someone with an eating disorder:
Citizens Advice Bureau and carer support networks can provide further information, and some will support you to apply for Carer’s Allowance. If your loved one is a university student, then they can apply for Disabled Student’s Allowances (DSAs) to see if they are eligible for financial support to help cover some of the extra costs due to the eating disorder.
Eating disorders, and mental illnesses in general, are often surrounded by stigma and misconceptions. This may make telling people that someone close to you is suffering more difficult. In some cases, you may not need to explain the exact nature of the illness to other people, especially if they are not likely to meet your loved one. However, when it is important to let people know about the eating disorder, the information on our website may help the person you’re talking to understand more about eating disorders.
Once people are aware of the situation, you might find they have questions about your wellbeing and that of your loved one. If this becomes difficult for you or feels overwhelming, you could ask someone else to keep people updated; it is important to do what feels manageable to you. If there are people who want to help but whose close involvement is not appropriate, you could ask for their help with day-to-day tasks. This could also involve asking for help with a sibling or child or young person where applicable, for example, giving them a lift to a club they attend, or taking them to the cinema for some time away from home.
As well as supporting your loved one with recovering from an eating disorder, it may be that you also have others who depend on you for your support. This might be a child, a relative, a friend or a partner for example. This can be extremely exhausting, and lead to people feeling like they are not doing a ‘good enough’ job. If you’re feeling this way, it’s important to recognise the huge challenge you are facing, and the hard work you are putting in.
Where possible, recognise that you’re not alone. Ask for support and accept it if it’s offered, so you can share the burden with others. If the person you are also supporting is a child, it could be helpful to speak to their school about what is going on for them at home and any extra support they may need.
Siblings who are not primarily responsible for their brother or sister's care can still play a role in their recovery. This may involve attending formal treatment sessions, or helping more generally, such as joining in an activity to support their sibling before or after mealtimes. Although siblings may want to be involved in this way, it is important to make it clear to them that they are not responsible for their loved one’s treatment or recovery. It can also be helpful to make clear to the sibling that they can have space away from home if needed – such as spending an evening at a friend’s house or going to see a film at the cinema.
Siblings can feel a range of confusing emotions about the eating disorder and the impact it has on the family. It's common to fear that their brother or sister will never recover and will die, so it is important to try to reassure them that recovery is possible, but sadly it is not a quick process. Reassure them that you are all working to support your loved one as best you can. Siblings can also report feeling guilty for living their life, but it’s important to encourage them to keep having fun and seeing their friends; let them know that their sibling’s recovery is not their responsibility. Often siblings can feel anger at the situation, which is something you may also have experienced. Try to help them direct this anger at the eating disorder, rather than their sibling, and reassure them that it is normal to feel this way.
Siblings often say that they would have appreciated having more information about the illness, so it can also be beneficial to ask them if they have any questions about what is going on and to let them know they can come to you if they do. It may be that it would be helpful to have a close friend or relative to talk to the sibling too, since they may wish to protect you and so not be open about how they are feeling or concerns they have. Beat’s leaflet ‘Caring for Someone with an Eating Disorder (for Under 18s)’ may be useful to show them.
If you’re caring for someone full-time, it’s vital to set aside time for yourself. This may be somewhere that friends and family can help. If you’re sharing primary care responsibilities with someone else, you could take it in turns to have some time off. If there’s no one around to take over your role, a carers’ organisation such as the Carers Trust might be able to help. You can see their details below.
British Association for Counsellors and Psychotherapists
Search for therapists in your area. Visit www.itsgoodtotalk.org.uk.
An NHS service for carers. Visit www.nhs.uk/carersdirect or call their helpline on 0300 123 1053.
A charity offering support to carers. Visit www.carers.org.
A charity supporting carers. Visit www.carersuk.org or call their helpline on 0808 808 7777.
A charity offering support to children and young people, including young carers. Visit www.childline.org.uk or call their helpline on 0800 1111.
Citizens Advice Bureau
For enquiries about legal rights and responsibilities, benefits for carers, and financial advice. Visit www.citizensadvice.org.uk.
Contains information about support services, both your rights and those of the person you’re supporting, and more on the laws that may be relevant to you. Visit www.gov.uk.
Information and support for anyone affected by mental health issues. Visit www.mind.org.uk or call 0300 123 3393.
National Institute for Health and Care Excellence
The NICE guidelines on the treatment the person you’re caring for is entitled to. Visit www.nice.org.uk.
Information on eating disorders and other mental and physical health issues, different treatment options, and local services. Visit www.nhs.uk.
Information and support for anyone affected by mental health issues. Visit www.rethink.org or call 0300 5000 927.
A charity supporting young people who are self-harming, which can sometimes occur alongside an eating disorder. Visit www.selfharm.co.uk.