Supporting someone with an eating disorder

If your friend or relative has an eating problem, they will eventually have to get professional help from a doctor, practice nurse, or a school or college nurse.

If a friend or relative has an eating disorder, such as anorexiabulimia or binge eating, you might want to encourage them to speak to someone about it. You could go with them for support if they want you to.

But there are other things you can do. You're already doing a great job by finding out how to help them  it shows you care.

You may have noticed your friend has changed. They may no longer go out or want to be included in things.

Keep trying to include them, just like before. Even if they don't join in, they will still like to be asked. It will make them feel valued as a person.

You can also try to build up their self-esteem, perhaps by telling them what a great person they are and how much you appreciate having them as a friend.

Try not to give advice or criticism. Give your time and listen to them. This can be tough when you don't agree with what they say about themselves and what they eat.

Remember, you don't have to know all the answers. Just being there is what's important. This is especially true when it feels like your friend or relative is rejecting your friendship, help and support.

How are eating disorders treated?

Treatment for eating disorders varies around the country. Different types of help may be offered depending on where you live.

Treatment includes dealing with the emotional issues as well as the physical, but this must be done slowly so your friend or relative is able to cope with the changes.

Treatment will involve your friend or relative talking to someone about the emotional difficulties that have led to their eating disorder. It will also explore their physical problems, general health and eating patterns. Help with eating and putting on weight is usually not enough.

The earlier your friend or relative embarks on the treatment programme and the more they engage with it, the better their chances of making a good recovery.

Will they have to go into hospital?

Most people with eating disorders are seen as outpatients. This means they visit the hospital  for example, one day a week. In severe cases, they might need to visit the hospital more often, or be admitted to hospital for more intensive support and treatment (known as inpatient care).

Should I visit them in hospital?

This depends on what your friend wants, how you feel and what the treatment centre allows. Let them know you're thinking of them and would like to visit them. If this is not possible, you can always write to them or call to let them know you're still there to support them.

Can people be forced to get help for eating disorders?

If your friend or relative has lost a lot of weight, they may be in danger of starving themselves and developing serious complications. They may not be able to think clearly and may refuse life-saving treatment.

In these circumstances, their doctor may decide to admit them to hospital for specialist treatment. This can only be done after the doctor has consulted colleagues and they agree with the doctor's decision. This is called being sectioned and it is done under the rules of the Mental Health Act.

Will they be cured when they come home?

Your friend or relative will still need your support. Most people with an eating disorder do recover and learn to use more positive ways of coping. 

But recovery from an eating disorder can be very difficult and can take a long time. Part of your friend may want to get better, while the other part might be very scared about giving up the eating disorder. They might think, "I want to get better, but just don't want to gain weight."

They will probably have good days and bad days. During times of stress, the eating difficulties may return. Changing the way people with eating disorders think and feel is never easy and it takes time.

The eating disorders charity beat has a dedicated online space for anyone who is supporting someone with an eating disorder.

Anorexia nervosa

Professor Janet Treasure, director of the eating disorder unit at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust, talks about anorexia nervosa, including how to spot the symptoms and how the eating disorder can affect a person's life

Media last reviewed: 22/04/2015

Next review due: 22/04/2017

Page last reviewed: 16/07/2014

Next review due: 16/07/2017


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