When someone you care about is struggling with an eating disorder, it can be difficult to know how or when to help. Showing support can often look and feel different depending on particular details or where someone is on their recovery journey.
Here are some ideas for how to help a friend with an eating disorder, regardless of where they are or what they’re going through.
No matter where your friend is on their recovery journey, learning a little more about what they’re going through is a helpful first step before approaching them.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses. They can manifest in a number of different ways, and are often accompanied by a host of less-obvious symptoms that may have a serious impact on your friend’s physical, mental, and emotional health.
If you have an idea of which eating disorder you think your friend may be struggling with, you can begin researching that topic in particular. If not, you can read more about eating disorders in general, or a few you think may most likely be affecting your friend.
Looking into the prevalent myths and hard truths about eating disorders can help you start to understand what your friend is really going through. This can help you empathize with them, ask them more helpful questions, or understand the type of help they may need.
Talking to a friend who’s struggling with an eating disorder can be tricky. The topic is extremely sensitive and discussing it may leave them feeling particularly upset or defensive.
If this is the first time you’re broaching the subject with your friend, you may want to:
The important thing is to not be discouraged by any reaction to this conversation. Try to remember all you learned about what your friend is going through to keep things in perspective. Take a breath, or walk away if you have to. Then, regroup, and try again.
Once you’ve let your friend know your concerns, it’s important to continue opening yourself up as a source of support. Cultivating the type of relationship where your friend feels safe honestly expressing themselves is key.
To help build and maintain this type of rapport, there are a few things to keep in mind:
Again, it’s important to remember that recovery is an ongoing process, and almost never represents a straight line. Keeping yourself open to your friend can provide a crucial point of stability along a difficult journey.
It can be tricky to discern when or how to actively incorporate yourself into your friend’s recovery journey. Some people may want more help than others, or feel more or less ready to receive outside suggestions.
In general, you’ll have to use your best discretion to decide when to take these steps, but a few ways to more proactively help a friend with an eating disorder include:
If your friend seems resistant to finding help, you may want to consult their family or other friends to more strongly encourage them to seek support. However, it is also important to respect your friend’s autonomy and privacy, so make decisions to involve others carefully and ideally discuss this with your friend first if possible.
Regardless of how much you want to help a friend with an eating disorder, it’s important to remember that you can’t pour from an empty cup.
Equally important as supporting them is keeping your own wellbeing in mind. Helping someone struggling with something this serious can take a lot out of you, mentally, physically, and emotionally.
Make sure you are meeting your own physical and emotional needs and not becoming burnt out by overextending yourself. You can work with your friend and other trusted individuals in their life to establish a care network so that they aren’t relying solely on one person for support. Even as you offer time and support to your friend as they go through their recovery process, remember that you need and deserve time and care for yourself too.
Regardless, it’s important to remember that, as much as you may want your friend to get better, the journey toward recovery is ultimately theirs to take. If your friend doesn’t feel ready to commit to recovery or starts slipping after a period of progress, it’s important not to blame yourself. The process may be long with twists and turns and even setbacks, but your support will be a big help to them, no matter where they are on the road to recovery.