How to Provide Support and Help

Help a loved one who may be struggling with an eating disorder

If you recognize signs and symptoms of an eating problem in someone you know, do not ignore them or wait until the problem has progressed to a dangerous level. The earlier your loved one can recognize his or her problem and seek professional help, the quicker the recovery process will be.

1. Educate yourself: There is so much more to an eating disorder than its definition. Read up on eating disorders from credible sources and don’t assume you know everything about them based on what you’ve heard in magazines and movies. Approaching your friend or family member with an understanding of the disease can go a long way. 

2. Talk in private: Set up a private time to talk so you won’t be interrupted or overheard. Your friend will probably feel vulnerable discussing his or her eating problems, so make sure the environment feels as comfortable and safe as possible.

3. Express concern: Express your concern in a caring way so your loved one doesn’t feel attacked. Use statements like “I’m worried that you…” or “I feel scared because…”.  Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt—eating disorders are never a choice.

4. Listen: Give your friend or loved one plenty of time to respond. You may have to sit in silence while they process your conversation enough to respond.  Use positive body language (like head nods) and phrases (like reflecting back what they've said) to encourage an open and ongoing dialog.

5. Avoid arguments: If your friend or loved one is defensive or denies having a problem, don’t fight back. Instead, stay calm and restate your concerns and feelings. If the conversation needs to end, try to allow your friend or loved one to feel welcome to address it again with you when they are ready. 

6. Encourage professional help: Eating disorders are complex illnesses. They are much deeper than surface issues about food and weight.  Recovery from an eating disorder typically requires a treatment team consisting of a mental health therapist, dietitian, psychiatrist, medical physician, and often additional therapies including cognitive behavioral therapy, art therapy, movement therapy, and more. The time needed to recover from an eating disorder varies greatly, but it is often correlated with how long it takes to get help.

7. Be a support: Offer to help find a professional who can provide a comprehensive assessment, make the appointment, and accompany your loved one to their assessment appointment. Having the support of friends and family in this situation can significantly decrease feelings of apprehension and fear.

8. Remember to take care of yourself: Acknowledge that an eating disorder diagnosis can be stressful for family and close friends. It’s difficult to see a loved one suffer, especially if they are resistant to help or in denial there's a problem. Understand that you don’t have the ability to make them get better. Leave time for self-care after an emotional discussion, and consider seeking support for yourself from a professional.