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 person'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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
You could also take a look at the resources available on feast-ed.org, a site for those caring for a loved one with an eating disorder.