When a person becomes so preoccupied with food and weight issues that they find it harder and harder to focus on other aspects of their life, it may be an early sign of an eating disorder. Eating disorders are mental health conditions that can affect people of any age or gender, although rates for women are higher; symptoms commonly appear in adolescence and young adulthood. Without treatment, eating disorders can take over a person’s life and lead to serious, potentially fatal medical complications.
Coping with an eating disorder isn’t easy for the person affected or family members and loved ones. Here are some suggestions from NAMI on how to help a loved one with an eating disorder.
Discuss your concerns. If you have concerns about a friend or family member and suspect an eating disorder may be the reason, learn about the different disorders, symptoms, and warning signs. When you are knowledgeable, talking with them in a loving and non-confrontational way about your concerns is best. Tell the person you care.
Suggest they see a doctor, counselor, or other health professional. This may be tricky, as your loved one may not want to admit or even realize there is a problem, but sometimes seeing a professional who is knowledgeable about eating disorders is the first step in recovery.
Avoid the traps. Conflicts and battles are hurtful. If a person is not ready to acknowledge a problem, you can be a supportive friend. Avoid placing blame, guilt, or shame on them about behaviors or attitudes related to the eating disorder. Remember that giving simple solutions minimizes the courage and strength a person needs to recover from an eating disorder.
Be a good role model. Reflect on your attitudes and actions. Do you maintain sensible eating and exercise habits? Also, focus on the other person’s successes, accomplishments, or personality.
Find emotional and professional support. Family support groups provide people with a chance to share thoughts, fears, and questions with other people who are in similar situations and understand.
Parents of children with eating disorders play a critical role; having a child with an eating disorder places significant responsibility on parents, making them active partners in treatment planning and implementation. Your family needs to feel comfortable and confident in the professional’s approach and abilities, and in discussing the disorder. Finding a mental health professional with experience treating young people or children with eating disorders and their families is important.
NAMI offers NAMI Basics classes, and NAMI Family-to-Family programs; find your local NAMI California affiliate.
More on the subject:
Facts about eating disorders
You Can’t Always See an Eating Disorder (NAMI blog post)
Don’t Give Up Fighting (NAMI blog post)
Have a story to share? Telling personal stories can be one of the most effective ways to diminish stigma and help individuals and families who are facing challenges related to mental illness.