Helping A Friend With an Eating Disorder Find Healing, Hope, and Health

helping a friend with an eating disorder
Helping a friend with an eating disorder can be an intimidating prospect, but voicing your concerns and encouraging treatment can be critical to helping them get the support they need to recover. Image Source: Pexels user Gianne Karla Tolentino

When your friend is struggling with an untreated eating disorder, it can be difficult to know what to say. You want to help, but bringing up such a sensitive and personal topic is often an overwhelming prospect, and you may be at a loss for words. It is common to worry that you are being invasive, that you’ll damage your relationship, or even that you’re mistaken. However, voicing your concerns can be critical to opening up a dialogue about what your friend is experiencing, breaking through the silence that too often surrounds eating disorders, and, ultimately, getting your friend the support they need. Left untreated, eating disorders can cause profound emotional and physical damage; the earlier you intervene, the better your friend’s chances are of recovering from both the psychological and somatic impact of their disorder.

Helping a friend with an eating disorder can require thoughtful planning to ensure that the conversation is as positive and productive as possible. The following guidelines can be used to shape your conversation and help you guide your friend toward the care they need to heal from their disordered relationship with their body and with food.

Educate Yourself

The best thing you can do for your friend is understand what they are going through. This begins with knowing the basics about their disorder and the underlying emotional issues from which their disordered eating stems. By understanding both the behavioral and psychological components of your friend’s eating disorder, you can ensure that you not only speak about their experience accurately, but in a way that is relevant and meaningful for them.

Eating disorders commonly occur alongside another mental health disorder, such as depression, anxiety, or PTSD. As such, it can be useful to extend your education beyond the eating disorder itself to understand the full scope of what your friend is experiencing and gain deeper insight into their struggle. While an eating disorder is a serious illness in its own right, acknowledging the complete picture of emotional suffering is often vital to ensuring that your friend feels supported.

Set Aside Time to Talk

Bringing up someone’s eating disorder can be an emotional experience for both of you. Setting up a meeting to talk privately in a relaxed environment can be critical to helping your friend feel comfortable and supported. Make sure there are no distractions or unwanted intrusions; this is a delicate topic and it must be given the respect it deserves.

Voice Your Concerns with Respect and Empathy

Tell your friend that you are worried about them in a supportive and loving way. As the Help Guide suggests, “Share your memories of specific times when you felt concerned about the person’s eating behavior,” and explain why “you think these things indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional help.” People with eating disorders often feel intense shame and have gone out of their way to keep their illness hidden from others; as such, speaking about it may make your friend feel vulnerable and exposed. However, many also find it deeply relieving to finally be able to talk about this painful part of their lives and know that someone cares. Be sure to reassure your friend that your concerns come from a place of love and caring, not a desire to control them or invade their privacy.

Don’t Shame, Trivialize, or Blame

Eating disorders are medical conditions with deep and complex emotional roots, not arbitrary choices or character flaws. People who experience these disorders are in deep psychological turmoil and need your support; judgment, shaming, or minimizing what they are going through will only serve to alienate your friend rather than guide them toward the help they need. To avoid blaming, frame your conversation around “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, “I am concerned that you are not eating enough” or “It makes me scared to see you overeating” are more open and supportive ways of bringing up your concerns than “You need to eat more” or “You are going to get health problems if you keep this up.”

Focus on What’s Important

It can be tempting to try to talk someone out of their eating disorder by reassuring them that they are beautiful or thin. However, this can be counterproductive; eating disorders have nothing to do with how someone really looks, and trying to talk someone out of an eating disorder based on their appearance ignores the true reality of the illness. Additionally, focusing on appearance can reinforce the idea that someone’s value as a human being is tied to physical appearance and weight. Instead, focus on the things that truly matter and the reasons you love, admire, and respect your friend. As the National Eating Disorders Association says, “Compliment your friend’s wonderful personality, successes, or accomplishments. Remind your friend that ‘true beauty’ is not skin deep.”

Encourage Treatment

One of the most important ways of helping a friend with an eating disorder is guiding them toward the professional help they need to recover. Encouraging them to get treatment for their illness at a high-quality treatment facility can truly be a life-changing experience and allow them to regain emotional and physical health. To facilitate this process, researching eating disorder treatment programs ahead of time will allow you to provide them with resources immediately and show them that they have options for regaining health and happiness.

If your friend is struggling with a co-occurring mental health disorder, both disorders must be treated simultaneously to create true healing and minimize risk of relapse. As such, finding a treatment program that specializes in dual diagnosis eating disorder treatment is paramount to ensuring success. Programs like Bridges to Recovery offer comprehensive care for people struggling with a range of emotional and behavioral issues and provide integrated therapies to address the full scope of your friend’s needs in a way that speaks to their unique situation. By combining the most effective, state-of-the-art treatments with compassionate care within an immersive therapeutic community, we support our clients mind, body, and spirit to create true transformation and encourage profound personal growth.

Bridges to Recovery provides comprehensive treatment for people struggling with mental health disorders and co-occurring eating disorders, substance addiction, and process addictions. Contact us for more information about how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.