How to help someone with an eating disorder

Read about how you can support someone who's currently struggling with an eating disorder.

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We understand that living with or being close to someone with an eating disorder can be incredibly frightening. You worry about their health, their future and the possibility of their recovery. You might also feel helpless, confused and angry as the person you love and care about continues to cause harm to themselves.

Within this blog, we look at how to help someone with an eating disorder so that you have the information you need to support the person and encourage them towards recovery.

Advice and information on helping someone with an eating disorder

Read and research

Eating disorders can be difficult to understand, and there are many myths and misunderstandings about the conditions, which often add to people’s confusion.

In order to help someone who has an eating disorder, spend time researching the condition so that you have a better understanding of what they're going through.

Fully recognising the different ways the eating disorder is affecting the person can make it easier for you to talk to and connect with them. It helps to break down the barrier that the eating disorder has started to cause.

Start a conversation

If you've mentioned your concerns to the person before, you may have been met with denial, anger or silence. Alternatively, it may have become the 'elephant in the room' that no-one dares to speak about.

Talking is important. We understand that you may be worried about saying the wrong thing, but this doesn’t equate to the danger of saying nothing at all. Here are some tips to help you when you bring up the topic:

  • Don’t focus on food or their body – this can cause the person to feel ashamed, embarrassed or guilty, and they may shut down the conversation. Also, don’t try to have the discussion when you're both around food as this will already be a challenging time for them, so they'll be less likely to engage with you
  • Ask about their thoughts and feelings - you may want to ask “how have you been feeling lately?” or “I’ve noticed you seem a bit down, is there anything on your mind?” Give them the time and space to think and answer. While it may be tempting to jump in and fill a silence or offer advice, just give them a sympathetic ear and let them know you're here to support them. You may even want to ask how you can help and at this point, it’s also fine to gently suggest the idea of getting support from a professional
  • Don’t continue if you’re met with denial, anger or silence - but also don’t give up. We understand that it can be difficult to see someone you care about try and push you away, but remember they are battling with a serious and controlling condition. Keep the lines of communication open, regularly check in with how they're feeling and let them know you’re here to talk when they want to

Continue to live - and eat - as you would

When someone close to you is suffering with an eating disorder, taking the time to look after yourself can feel strange sometimes, and even selfish. But it’s not. It’s important for you to stay well, for your own sake and for the other person too.

Make sure you have time and space for yourself. Do the things that you enjoy in life. Also, talk to other people about what you're going through as you need a support network too.

Remember that seeing acts of normality like eating meals, having snacks and relaxing can help a person with an eating disorder to see the possibility of a life away from the struggles they're currently living with.

Show you care

A person who's suffering from an eating disorder can become distant. They may start to pull away and lose interest in the things they once enjoyed.

When helping someone with an eating disorder, encourage them to spend time with you and other people they're close to. Also send them a quick text or give them a phone call to show that you’re thinking about them. These acts of kindness will help the person to recognise that they're valued and they have people around them who want to see them feel better.

How to deal with serious situations

Eating disorders are life-threatening. If a person has collapsed or has attempted to take their own life, you should take immediate action. At this point, it may be that the person also understands the severity of their condition and recognises that they need professional support.

Take the person to hospital or book an emergency doctor’s appointment. It's OK for you to take charge and do what needs to be done in these serious situations.

Accessing eating disorder treatment at Priory

At Priory, we provide treatment to people who are struggling with eating disorders. We have a number of treatment programmes available, which include:

  • A day treatment programmethis is often recommended for people in the earlier stages of an eating disorder. These provide psychiatric, therapeutic, nutritional and dietetic support, along with the option of returning home in the evenings if appropriate
  • A residential treatment programme – most commonly used for people who need more intensive treatment, this provides people with 24/7 care and monitoring within a live-in facility or hospital
  • Outpatient therapy - this is often used by people in the earlier stages of an eating disorder. The person has the opportunity to meet with a psychiatrist, therapist, dietitian and/or nutritionist and begin addressing their unhealthy relationship with food, drink and exercise, while continuing with their responsibilities (such as attending work)

When a person is starting their treatment journey with us, they'll initially speak to a member of our team who will work with them to determine the treatment that will be most suitable and effective.

If you would like to find out about the treatment options that are available here at Priory, please visit our eating disorder treatment page for further information.

Page clinically reviewed by Lorna Richards (MA, MBChB (Honours), MRCPsych) Consultant Psychiatrist at Life Works.

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