*TW: References to eating disorders/certain eating disorder behaviours/mental illness (NO references to numbers/calories/weight etc)*
Why Is This So Important?
Every year Eating Disorders Awareness Week takes place across the country and I am really grateful that Nightline recognises such an important movement. Approximately 1.25 million people in the UK are currently suffering from an eating disorder of some form. The term ‘eating disorder’ is an incredibly broad umbrella term that accounts for a multitude of mental illnesses revolving around body image and eating behaviours – the most commonly spoken about being anorexia nervosa, bulimia and binge eating disorder; however, it’s important to state that there are many others.
This blog post has been written in hope that it will serve as a useful starting point if you are worried about a friend or loved one and want to learn how to help them in the best way. You’ll find three sections 1) how to spot the warning signs 2) how to support your friend through their eating disorder and 3) how you can help them during recovery.
It is so incredibly vital that there is a better understanding, increased knowledge, and more education about eating disorders. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate out of any mental illness and, without successful treatment, 1 in 5 of those with anorexia will lose their lives to the illness. Just having an understanding of eating disorders – and this does not have to be at an expert level – can, quite literally, be life-saving.
Having lived with anorexia, on and off – but mostly on to some degree – for nearly 7 years, I have first-hand experience of the huge misunderstanding, stigma, and prejudice that surrounds eating disorders. It is difficult to comprehend, but so important to understand, the way this lack of knowledge and understanding of eating disorders has devastating and deathly consequences. My experience of living with anorexia is one filled with ignorance and stigma and this does not, should not, and hopefully soon will not be the case.
EDAW’s focus this year is highlighting the shocking statistic that 1 in 5 medical schools do not deliver any teaching on eating disorders, and of those that do, students spent less than 2 hours learning about them. This is something that has been incredibly evident to me on so many occasions. It is perhaps all the more important therefore that we educate ourselves as much as we can so we can help our loved ones, so this blog post should hopefully serve as a start point in learning how to support a friend through an eating disorder.
Shockingly, but sadly un-surprisingly, I was never taught anything like this at school and I strongly suspect that my school is not an anomaly in that. So, hopefully, this helps in some way. Some elements of this post are more specifically related to anorexia, but generally speaking, everything I have written can be adopted by you to support whoever it is who, I guarantee, could really do with your help.
Spotting The Warning Signs
Obviously, the natural place to start is how to spot the warning signs that your friend may be starting to struggle with an eating disorder. This is an important and potentially life-saving opportunity to step in. Firstly, being gentle and kind is key in the early stages. Eating disorders are sneaky and can make the person experiencing the illness push others away. This is because the illness sees ‘help’ as a threat as it means the eating disorder’s control is in jeopardy. It is normal to feel anger towards your friend’s sudden change – especially when it seems incomprehensible as to why they can’t ‘just eat’ – but it is really important that you understand you are angry at the eating disorder, and not at your friend.
Some of the key signs (and a very cringe way to remember them) to look out for in your friends are:
Lips: Obsessive over food e.g. counting calories and clear changes in their eating habits and behaviours
Flips: Behaviour and personality changes e.g. skipping meals, appearing secretive, withdrawing from social activities, pulling away from friends and a general change in their demeanour.
Hips: Distorted beliefs about their body (not every person with an eating disorder will have a drastic weight change and this has nothing to do with the severity of their illness)
Skips: Excessive exercise (not applicable to all eating disorders)
Kips: Tiredness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, low energy.
We all hold stigmas towards things in life, even if they are subconscious, and eating disorders are hugely stigmatized. However, misconceptions of eating disorders can be really damaging – so to help combat your understandable frustration, anger and probably at the bottom of it all – intense worry – you might be feeling, it might help you to remember that eating disorders are not:
Just a ‘phase’
Something that only affects people of a certain ethnic, economic and social background
A choice that someone is making
Something that someone can just decide not to ‘have’ anymore
Visible through physical appearance – someone can be experiencing the hardest time of their life with minimal to no weight change.
Supporting Them Through The Darkness
It is so distressing to sit back and watch someone you care about continuously carry out damaging behaviours and harm themselves, and unfortunately, you will never be able to ‘cure’ them as such. There are, however, so many things that you are able to do to help them as they are in the depths of their struggles.
Acknowledge to your loved one that you are there for them, that you do not think differently of them, and ensure that they understand you are not blaming them for what they are experiencing.
Understand that they are not choosing to have an eating disorder – it is frustrating but I can promise you that, deep down beyond their eating disorder, they don’t want to be poorly even more than you don’t want them to be poorly.
Ask your friend how you can help! It may seem that they are a different person, but really that is only the eating disorder – they are still the person you know and love! By asking if you can help in any way, you are giving them control and the opportunity to use you for the support that they so desperately will need.
Ask your friend how you cannot help! In the same way that you can ask them if they need help, it can be equally beneficial to ask them if they would like you to do anything differently.
At mealtimes, keep conversations neutral – avoid discussing topics such as diets/exercise/the food you are eating.
Continue to invite them to social occasions but if you can, perhaps try and suggest activities not revolved around food or give them the opportunity to decide.
Holding Their Hand Through Recovery
Once your friend is in the process of ‘recovery’ – an active choice that they will have bravely made to try and overcome their illness – your help remains crucial and invaluable. The bizarre thing about this process is that essentially everything you think you should say, or what you would assume would be the nice/right thing to say, is (probably) in fact the worst thing you can say! Just because someone is ‘weight restored’, this is categorically not indicative of how they are doing mentally. It is incredibly crucial to avoid ‘triggering’ the person and I have compiled yet again another list (!) which may help you understand how to help your friend:
Do not comment on how they look! Even though they seem like nice compliments, phrases such as ‘you look so much better’, ‘you look so healthy, ‘you look so well’, ‘you look so much prettier’ etc are so very damaging. This tells the ED voice inside their head that they are losing control and can send them spiralling back.
Continue to avoid any weight-related talk/diet talk around your friend.
Remember that even if they look like they are better, this does not mean that they are any better at all and does not indicate what is going on inside their head.
Remember that they are doing their best – but continue to avoid phrases such as being ‘proud’ of how ‘well’ they are doing, as these can be a strong trigger.
Ask how they are doing! It’s so appreciated to know that their friends have not forgotten that they are suffering and that they have not forgotten that, just because they may be weight restored, they may still be fighting the toughest battle they will ever experience.
And finally, look after your lovely self too! My advice would be to always remember that you are not the problem and you are also not the solution. Nothing you do can make someone better, but you can make sure that you are doing all you can to help them get through their battle.
If you are worried about yourself, or about a friend, please sensitively but surely reach out.
"There is no magic cure, no making it go away forever. There are only small steps upward; an easier day, an unexpected laugh, and a mirror that doesn't matter anymore." - Lauren Halse Anderson
Sending lots of love and hugs to anyone who is struggling today and every other day. X
Written by Katy Marshall, Publicity Volunteer
BEAT UK offers information and advice on eating disorders, and runs a supportive online community. Call 0808 801 0677 or visit https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/
Anorexia and Bulimia Care (ABC) offer advice and support for anyone affected by eating problems. Call 03000 11 12 13 or visit anorexiabulimiacare.org.uk
Exeter's Eating Difficulties Peer Support Group offers a safe, friendly and non-judgemental environment for students with eating difficulties. Everyone should have the right to access support for their mental health when they need it. Visit: https://www.exeterguild.org/societies/39140/#:~:text=The%20University%20of%20Exeter%20Eating,health%20when%20they%20need%20it.
Exeter Student Nightline open 8pm-8am every night of term for Exeter students to talk about anything that is on their mind. We'll listen, not lecture. Find our number on the back of your student card or speak to us via instant messenger