With roughly 1 in 10 young women struggling with an eating disorder, it’s easy to assume it’s “just a phase” if a friend is exceedingly worried about weight. But eating disorders are the deadliest of all mental health disorders and, if left untreated, often get worse over time. You care and you’re ready to help, which is the first step. Here are some ways you can make a difference.
Get Educated. To help understand what your friend is going through, learn as much as you can about eating disorders and educate your friend. If you recognize the signs of an eating disorder, start a conversation. Early intervention can prevent years of physical and emotional damage.
Express Your Concern. Find a time when you can talk to your friend privately and express your concerns in a supportive, sincere, and nonjudgmental way. For example, “I’m concerned that you’re skipping meals” or “You seem preoccupied with your weight; is everything OK?” Mention the specific behaviors you’ve noticed and listen to your friend’s feelings. Be prepared for your friend to feel angry, embarrassed, confused or hurt because you’d feel that way, too, if your primary coping mechanism was being threatened.
Focus on Feelings. Although eating disorders seem to be about food, the disorders are more often attempts to cope with difficult feelings. Instead of commenting on your friend’s appearance, body or diet (or your own), focus on what is happening in each other’s lives.
Offer Helpful Resources. Encourage your friend to talk with a therapist, treatment center or health care professional. You could even offer to make an appointment or go along for emotional support. There are no simple solutions to an eating disorder, but talking to someone is often the first step toward healing. If your friend refuses, offer information about helpful Web sites, books or support groups.
Ask for Help. If you’ve tried everything you can think of and your friend is still in denial, reach out to a trusted adult, school counselor or health care professional. These people can offer suggestions for how to approach your friend, while also helping you work through the feelings you may be having about the situation and set appropriate limits to safeguard your own health.
There’s also a lot you shouldn’t do when trying to help a friend deal with an eating disorder.
Don’t engage in a power struggle. If your friend doesn’t want to talk, let her know you’re there no matter what. Then give your friend time to think about it. Later, she may feel more comfortable opening up.
Don’t blame or shame your friend. Eating disorders are often a sign of deep emotional pain so if you’re angry, be angry at the illness, not the person struggling with it. Comments like, “Why don’t you just eat already?” or “You’re all skin and bones” are very damaging. Instead, tell your friend how you feel and ask how you can help.
Don’t become the food/exercise police. While it may be tempting to monitor your friend’s behaviors, lecturing someone about what she eats or how often she exercises isn’t helpful.
Don’t threaten the friendship. If your friend refuses to get help, don’t threaten to withdraw your friendship. Try to set aside any anger, threats or ultimatums because your friend needs all the support possible.
An eating disorder really can put your friend’s life in danger. You can’t control someone’s behavior, but you can offer to help. It may not go the way you hope, but if it does, you’ve made a life-changing difference in the life of someone dear to you.
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Dr. Carolyn Ross is an internationally known physician, author and speaker on addictions, obesity and eating disorders. She serves as a consultant to The Ranch’s eating disorder treatment program in Tennessee, maintains a private practice in Denver, is the author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook: An Integrated Approach to Overcoming Disordered Eating as well as The Joy of Eating Well and also hosts a weekly radio show, The Vital Life.