Marina Abdel Malak writes: How you can help
if you discover that your child or someone you know has ED, it can be really scary. You might be confused as to WHY your child is ill, why they are acting this way, and why they just can’t eat! If someone you know has ED, you may want to do anything to help, but you are confused as to what you can actually do. Below are some tips that are well worth knowing, as they can help you best support someone struggling with an eating disorder.
WHAT NOT TO DO/SAY
-“You look really thin. You need to eat something” (the person with ED may get defensive and feels offended that you are telling them to eat, and that you are belittling their illness)
-“WHY CAN”T YOU JUST EAT?!” (The person can’t ‘just eat’ because they have an illness that forbids them from eating. Why can’t cancer patients just kill their cancer cells? EDs are mental illnesses and need treatment and support!).
-“Just ignore the eating disorder. You are going to die” (Yes, the ED can kill the patient. But telling them to ignore it is undermining the complexity of the illness. It takes a lot more than just ‘ignoring’ ED to recover)
-Don’t tell the victim to go eat something. Chances are, they WILL NOT do that. Instead, try asking them if they would like to have a meal together – maybe this will ease their anxiety. If they decline, don’t keep pushing. The patient is not trying to be rude; they are just scared and ED is screaming at them. Think of ways to support them. Perhaps they need someone to stay with them after meals to forget about the urge to purge. Maybe they need someone to model
healthy eating behaviours for them.
-Don’t stop inviting them to parties or get-together just because they always say ‘no’. The victim’s ED wants to isolate him/her. If you stop inviting them to gatherings, ED will take more advantage of this and tell the victim that they are not welcome with their friends because they are useless, fat, ugly, etc.
-Don’t call any of their symptoms ‘stupid’. Saying that starvation is stupid does not help the victim – it only makes him/her feel less-confident and bad about themselves.
WHAT CAN BE HELPFUL
-When the time is right, approach the person and say that you are worried. You have noticed that she/he looks a bit different or ill, and you want to know how you can help them. The victim will usually take this as a supportive approach.
-Ask the person if you can help them find resources. Maybe you can drive them to a doctor’s appointment or to go see a dietitian or therapist.
-Offer to take them out for a small snack or meal. If they refuse or decline, make another commitment to do something with them. Sometimes, the patient will agree to a gathering, and maybe this can encourage them to stop isolating
-Let them know that getting treatment for their eating disorder is not wrong or shameful. It is an illness like any other disease. Getting professional help – in any form – is important. Tell them that you are there for them – to support, to love, to care, etc.
-Check-in with the victim often. Give them a call to ask if they are alright. Make them feel loved and important. This can help their self-esteem and isolation.
-Education yourself! Take the time to learn about eating disorders. There are many
misconceptions about EDs, as well as stigma associated with these mental illnesses. The more
you educate yourself, the better you will be at supporting your loved one or friend.
I’m sure there are so many other tips and things to do or not do. But these are just a few that
I could think of. I suppose the most important thing to remember is that ED IS an illness and
it is not something that the patient chooses. Therefore, teasing them or mocking their illness
will only make them isolate more. Be patient with them and show them love. They need all the
care and support they can get. And above all, reinforce that EDs are real mental illnesses, and
that they are serious. The patient is not to blame. No one is. Rather than trying to find someone
to blame, focus on how you can support the patient. Let them know that you care, and that
recovery is possible. Give them hope and let them understand that you are there to support them
in any way that will be helpful.