Instead of searching for the reasons for the eating disorder, try to plan what to do next. The sooner help is found, the better the outcome.
Trying to talk to someone you suspect has an eating disorder for the first time can be a very difficult task. Recovery cannot begin while there is secrecy or denial of the illness. The illness will not go away by itself, so although talking about it may be difficult, it is the first step.
What do I do if someone has an eating disorder?
Learn more about eating disorders and find out what help is available for the person with the eating disorder and yourself.
Am I the best person to approach them?
Who is the best person to approach them?
Do I need to talk to their parents/teacher/counsellor before I do anything?
It is unlikely to be effective if you try and demand a change in behaviour. This will probably make the situation worse. Don’t try to use emotional blackmail as this may make them feel worse. In order to help someone overcome distress around eating you will need to listen and try and understand their point of view. A helpful approach is to remain warm and respectful but somewhat distant.
Offer support if you are willing
You may offer support in finding professional help or you may want to offer support by listening. This may be the first time they have talked about their eating disorder so remember to take care of yourself and don’t take on more than you can handle – don’t try to be a therapist.
Communicating with someone with an eating disorder means…
- Being a good listener
- Understanding what they are trying to say
- Avoiding comments about appearance
- Showing you love them and accept them for the person they are
- Agreeing to disagree to avoid arguments
Decide what you want to say
Make a plan to approach the person in a private place where there is no immediate stress and there is time to talk. Don’t try and talk at a confrontational moment. Find a time when everything is calm and quiet.
State in a caring but straightforward way what you have observed, and what your concerns are. Tell them that you are worried and would like to help. People who are too angry with the person to talk quietly should not be there.
Leaving an open door for someone to talk when they are ready must be a part of the opening communications.
Be honest and clear in what you say
- Focus on what you see and hear and what you feel
- Be non-judgemental
- Be as clear and direct as possible
Be prepared for denial or anger
Sometimes the individual will be relieved that you spoke up and be ready to accept your support and seek help. Often though, the response is denial or anger; this doesn’t mean you have failed. Because of the emotional nature of eating disorders, you may hear a mixed reaction. Denial is very much a part of eating disorders. Sometimes denial is just about a fear of losing control of weight, or shame about what they are doing. If the person denies the problem or becomes angry or refuses treatment, understand that this could be part of the illness. Talking to a professional can help you find the courage to find the right words. This is something that First Steps can help you with.
Offer to accompany the person for a session with a doctor or eating disorder service and wait while they have their first appointment. Ask them to have just one appointment without asking them to commit to regular treatment.
The person must want to change their lifestyle. You can only help them effectively if they are prepared to help themselves. They may not be ready yet.
Each person is different with different levels of awareness, understanding and motivation to change. There are no ‘one size fits all’ answers to how to help or what to say. We recommend learning as much as you can about eating disorders and talking through your feelings with a professional before approaching the person you are worrying about. This is something that First Steps can help you with.
Don’t focus on food and eating. This is easier said than done. It is hard to hold your tongue when someone is obviously failing to take care of themselves in this way. Realise that for them it is the only way they know how to be in control.
Don’t keep watching them and questioning them – especially about food. Eating disordered behaviour is designed to be both a secret and a communication at the same time. There is no point in cross questioning someone about their eating behaviour, it encourages lies and deception. Forcing someone suffering from eating distress to eat less or eat more does not help matters.
The duration of an eating disorder is variable, but the average is 5-10 years. Research shows that the sooner the illness is recognised and treated the more successful with outcome will be.