Yesterday marked the beginning of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week. Since this year’s theme is “Everybody Knows Somebody,” I think it’s important to discuss how you can help someone who might be struggling with an eating disorder.
Below, Bonnie Brennan, MA, LPC, NCC, clinical director of the adult partial hospitalization program at the Eating Recovery Center, reveals some of the signs of eating disorders, how you can talk to someone you think might have an ED and how you can offer support.
Q: What are the signs that someone may have an eating disorder?
A: While specific signs will vary from person to person, some general signs that someone may have an eating disorder include:
- Preoccupation with food and body shape and size.
- Rapid weight loss.
- Going to the bathroom after meals.
- Having a difficult time eating in social situations.
- Displaying strange rituals when eating food, such as “needing to” eat in a certain order or cut food into small pieces.
- Scarring on knuckles from purging.
- Conversations centered around needing reassurance that he or she is not fat.
- An intense fear of gaining weight or “getting fat.”
- Isolating from activities or people with whom he or she would normally be involved.
Q: What are the best ways to approach the person?
A: Find a time and place for a private, respectful meeting to discuss your concerns. A neutral, comfortable location that does not involve food is best. This can help someone feel cared for and supported when dealing with this severe mental illness.
Express your concerns, and tell the individual that you have noticed that he or she has been having trouble with foods and speaking negatively about him- or herself. Ask the individual if he or she has considered whether or not he or she may be dealing with an eating disorder.
When communicating your concerns, try to avoid conflict or struggles. Try to avoid “you” statements such as, “You just need to eat.” Instead, focus on “I” statements that convey your worry and concern for your loved one’s wellbeing. Offer to help the individual get an evaluation or gain access to care if needed, and continue to express your support as he or she enters into treatment.
If the individual denies the existence of a problem, simply restate your reasons for concern and leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener.
Q: How can you help them find treatment?
A: Look for specialists in your area. Organizations such as the National Eating Disorders Association and the International Association of Eating Disorders Professionals offer lists of nationwide treatment resources.
Once you identify an eating disorders specialist, help your friend or loved one seek an evaluation. For example, at Eating Recovery Center, where we provide all levels of care, our clinical assessment team works with individuals to understand their specific treatment needs and recommend a level of care.
Q: Of course the level of support will depend on the person’s age. But what are general ways loved ones can provide valuable support?
A: Remember that eating disorders are not about control or stubbornness, but rather are medical and mental health conditions.
Understand that eating disorders are emotional issues as well, and ask your loved one what he or she needs. Be available to listen, talk about emotional issues and validate that your loved one is having a hard time.
Remember that playing “food police” doesn’t work, leave that to your loved one’s treatment team. Parents of adolescents, however, may need to work with professionals to provide support around meal planning to ensure that their child has adequate nutrition available in their home.
One supportive act that we often forget is showing a willingness to eat with your loved one. Sitting down to eat a normal meal with your loved one is a big show of support for him or her.
Q: Can you recommend any resources, such as books or websites, for loved ones to check out to learn more about eating disorders and how to help?
A: The National Eating Disorders Association has a significant amount of resources available for parents, spouses, coaches, teachers and loved ones of people struggling with eating disorders.
Eating Recovery Center also offers a variety of resources, including fact sheets, videos and opportunities to confidentially chat online with a member of our intake team.
Something-fishy.org is another great resource for seeking support from others who are struggling with eating disorders.
In terms of books, I recommend people visit Gürze. GürzeBooks offers a significant number of great books and pamphlets related to eating disorders treatment and recovery for individuals struggling with eating disorders, their loved ones and professionals.
Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about helping a loved one?
A: The primary therapeutic model we use at Eating Recovery Center, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), can serve as a universal tool for people to use as they are supporting someone through eating disorders recovery.
ACT teaches individuals to accept their negative thoughts and emotions and to commit to living a valued life in the presence of them. It teaches people to understand they will have unpleasant feelings and experiences and to respond to them with the big picture in mind, rather than reacting impulsively. The Happiness Trap by Dr. Russ Harris offers a great explanation of ACT; we recommend that all of our patients and their loved ones read it.
Thank you to Bonnie Brennan for sharing her insight!
Also, in this post, women who’ve recovered from eating disorders share their valuable ideas on how loved ones can offer real support.
This week, I’m honored to be part of Body Image Warrior Week, which was started by Sally of Already Pretty. As she wrote on her blog, “Both as a means of supporting NEDA’s work during awareness week, and as a way of introducing you to a group of amazing women who fight hard against body image oppression through their own words and work, I decided to coordinate Body Image Warrior Week.”
So throughout this week, both on Weightless and the other blogs below, you’ll read various posts on body image.
I want to clarify that eating disorders go beyond body dissatisfaction, which is just one symptom that strikes many individuals with EDs. A bad body image or our thin-is-in-culture doesn’t cause eating disorders.
Eating disorders are serious brain-based illnesses that are caused by a variety of complicated factors, including genetics, biology and environment.
Still, our society can make it tougher to recover from eating disorders — or even to seek help. Our society’s restrictive physical standards fuel body preoccupation, and they can lead individuals to want to lose weight and diet, which is a common trigger for those already genetically vulnerable to eating disorders.
Body image is just one small piece of a much larger, more complex puzzle. But it can be a place to start.
Learn more about Body Image Warrior Week and how you can participate here.
And here’s a look at the participants:
- Already Pretty
- The Beheld
- Decoding Dress
- Dress with Courage
- Eat the Damn Cake
- Fit and Feminist
- Medicinal Marzipan
- Not Dead Yet Style
- Rosie Molinary
- Virginia Sole-Smith