Approaching a loved one with your concerns is not easy but doing so will help them realise that they have a problem and that help is available.
Taking the first steps to confronting someone you suspect is suffering from an eating disorder can be a daunting task. You may want to help them but be unsure how. You may be worried that they will get angry or that you will drive them away. These feelings are understandable. So what should you do?
Supporting someone with an eating disorder can be hard, especially if you are close to them. Remember that you are not alone. Eating disorder support groups, such as Biteback, BEAT and Syeda, offer help and advice to both sufferers and their loved ones.
The sufferer is likely to need professional help to confront the issues causing the eating disorder. While you cannot force them to accept help you can point them in the right direction and offer gentle and regular encouragement. If the person is worried about going to see someone offer to go with them. The first step is often the hardest to take.
Denial is unlikely to reduce with time and may even get worse. Try not to ignore your concerns. Discussing your worries with the person early will make recovery easier.
Confronting the issue head-on may help the sufferer to realise that they have a problem; the first step to recovery. If the person gets angry with you remember that this is their eating disorder talking. Don’t get offended or disheartened. Keep reassuring them that you care and are there to help.
Respect that the sufferer might not want anyone else to know about their eating disorder. By telling other people, without discussing this with them first, you are likely to lose their trust and with it, your chance to help and support them. If you feel that you need support and advice try and seek it from a person that does not know the sufferer. Remember that if you need confidential advice support service are there for you too.
You may find it difficult to understand why the person has an eating disorder but remember it is not their fault. You do not choose to have an eating disorder; it is an illness. Avoid being critical and try not to suggest that the solution is as simple as eating or exercising differently. The most important thing is to show that you care and are there for them if they need to talk.
Eating disorders can be life threatening. If you have concerns over the sufferer’s physical wellbeing, suggest that they seek medical advice. If it will help, accompany them to the GP. If they get admitted to hospital try and be there to explain the situation. Visit them regularly and continue to show that you care and are there to help. If the suffer feels that they need to continue with a more intense treatment program, specialist inpatient services are available around Sheffield.
You may feel, that by trying to help, you are walking on eggshells; never sure of what to say or do and worried that the suffer will respond to your efforts with anger or resentment. This can put a huge strain on your relationship, increasing stress for both you and the sufferer. Remember that the person you knew before the eating disorder is still there. The eating disorder has not changed them, it is simply shouting in a louder and more forceful voice than that of the sufferer. By continuing to support the sufferer you will help them to find the strength and voice to rid themselves of their eating disorder.
During your time as a student you are likely to spend the majority of your time around your friends and housemates. If a friend or housemate develops and eating disorder you may be one of the first to notice and one of the best placed to help them.
Try not to let the eating disorder rule your or the sufferer’s life. Keep doing things that you have always done together; go to the cinema, go out for a drink, do anything that you feel may help to take the sufferer’s mind off their problems. They may be reluctant to socialise and may refuse your offer but by giving them the option you are showing them that you still value their friendship and company. Remember that the less the sufferer goes out the harder going out will become.
Don’t make a big deal out of the eating disorder. This can be particularly difficult if you live with the person or share meal times. Avoid drawing attention to what the sufferer is eating or nagging them to eat differently. If you can, try and eat together. This will help to remind the sufferer what a ‘normal’ portion sizes and meal type is and will introduce a social and fun side to eating. Communal cooking may also help the sufferer to face their fears. Eating food that they have not prepared themselves may provoke too much anxiety. You may need to allow the sufferer to have control over what food is bought and cooked.
The most important thing that you can do is to listen and be understanding. If one of your students is getting behind with their work, don’t get annoyed, ask them why. If they won’t tell you, and you suspect that they might be suffering from an eating disorder, stress to them that you are there to help in any way you can if this means offering them extensions or giving them time off explain to them that this can be arranged and will not negatively impact their degree outcome.
Advise the student to seek professional help, either from the University GP surgery, a private GP. Let them know that if they don’t feel that they can talk directly to you there are other avenues available. They might prefer to talk to another member of staff or to see someone in student services.
If a student comes to request time off be supportive of this. Discuss the various options but do not try to influence their decision. The most important thing is that they do what they need to in order to make a full and lasting recovery. Remember that taking time out of university is likely to be a huge step for them. It may be harder for them to do this than to carry on with their studies.
Eating disorders are complex illnesses and it can take years for the sufferer to fully recover. The road will be difficult with steps forward and steps back. Keep reminding yourself that recovery is possible. Every step forward is a huge achievement and should be celebrated as such. A step back is a glitch, a time in which the sufferer needs extra encouragement and support. Don’t dwell on the negative but rather remind the sufferer of their successes. Gradually, the steps forward will begin to outweigh the steps back and the person you knew before the eating disorder took hold will begin to shine through.
"When my sister first told me that she thought I had an eating disorder I got really defensive and angry. I didn’t talk to her for a few days. In those few days I started to think about how I was behaving and what I was thinking. I began to realise that my eating and exercise habits had taken control over my life; my social life, work and health were all suffering as a result. For the first time I saw that I couldn’t carry on as I was forever. My sister helped me to see that I had a problem and was there to encourage me to seek the help I needed to recover."