Friends and family are often key to encouraging someone with an eating disorder to seek help. The eating disorder sufferer is sometimes resistant to the concept or is unaware that there is a problem. They are often afraid or ashamed to seek help, or they are unsure about giving up the behaviors, many eating disorder sufferers find it difficult to seek help for this deadly disorder. An important role played by friends and family can be in identifying troubling symptoms and conveying their concerns to the sufferer and encouraging them to seek help.
When you are close to someone, it’s not always easy to discuss eating disorders. Nevertheless, many individuals now in recovery from an eating disorder later recognize that the support of family and friends was critical in their recovery.
Some useful steps to take in initiating a conversation about a loved one’s eating disorder:
- Set an appointment where you can have extended private time and a place to talk without interruption. These disorders can entail extremely personal traumas and a public discussion or one in front of others should be avoided at all costs. Set an appointment where you will have an open-ended amount of time to discuss your concerns without being rushed because of any other scheduling.
- Remember the use of “I” statements. Because, oftentimes, we shift the focus onto the person suffering. Rather, focus on the behaviors that you have observed; statements like: “I have noticed that you aren’t eating dinner with us anymore,” or “I am worried about how often you are going to the gym.” Instead of using accusatory statements like“You’re not eating! You’re exercising too much!”, which can cause someone to get defensive. Instead, stick to conveying your observations. If possible, point out other behaviors not directly related to eating and weight, which may be easier for the person to accept.
- Rehearse your concerns. Because you may be anxious or nervous about conveying such a critically important message, rehearsing what you are going to say may help reduce your anxiety and clarify exactly the points you wish to discuss. Sometimes writing out your concerns is a way to make certain you hit the points you desire.
- Stick to the facts. Because raising concerns about a potential eating disorder can bring up lots of emotions, it’s important to stick to the central facts. Do not let the individual divert or digress or start a blame game. You are there to discuss things that worry you. Discuss changes in behaviors and/or appearance and calmly point out why you are concerned (“I have seen you constantly excuse yourself to go to the bathroom after meals . This has made me worried you might be making yourself throw up.”).
- Remove the potential stigma. Reiterate that there’s no shame in admitting you struggle with an eating disorder or other mental health problems. In fact, commend them for the bravery to admit it and seek treatment. Many people are diagnosed with these issues during their lifetimes, and many will recover and live long productive happy lives.
- Overly simplistic solutions should be avoided. Telling someone to “Just stop” or “Just eat” isn’t helpful and is not a long-term solution. It can often backfire because it leaves the sufferer feeling defensive, frustrated, and misunderstood.
- Encourage them to seek professional help. Professional eating disorder treatment is often required for an eating disorder sufferer to get better. If they do not already have one, offer to them in finding a physician or therapist 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. Many eating disorder sufferers are excited that someone has noticed they are struggling with this condition. However, others may respond differently by becoming defensive, angry, and even hostile. They may try to deflect the blame or divert from it by insisting that you are the one with the problem. Others may brush off your concerns, minimizing potential dangers. These types of responses are normal. Reiterate your concerns, restate how much you care, and leave the conversation open.
Don’t despair if you feel the discussion wasn’t well-received or that you failed to get through your message to your loved one. You did your part and you shared your concern and let them know that you care and you are there for them. There is a possibility, too, that you planted a thought in their head that they should seek help. Even though they may not act immediately, 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.