Conversations around weight, food and physical appearance can be complicated and sensitive. This can make it challenging to talk to someone who you think may have an eating disorder. While your intentions are good, these kinds of conversations can make the person feel defensive and perhaps even ashamed.
With 28.8 million people in the United States. experiencing an eating disorder in their lifetimes, it is likely you know someone who may have an eating disorder.
Eating disorders are like other mental health challenges: There is not one simple reason why they happen. Rather, there can be a wide range of biological, psychological and social factors. In fact, eating disorders frequently co-occur with depression, anxiety and substance use challenges. Since feelings of shame and guilt often accompany eating disorders, it can be hard to detect signs and symptoms.
As with other mental health challenges, according to the Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) curriculum, the earlier treatment is started, the more likely the person is to recover. The longer the person waits, the harder it is to recover.
You can help. Sometimes talking to the person in need and offering your support can be the beginning of their recovery journey.
Before jumping into action to talk to your loved one, take time to refine your approach. Have specific examples of behaviors that concern you. A well-planned and executed conversation can make the person feel hope and optimism and ultimately seek treatment. Get started with these tips from Mental Health First Aid.
Do Your Research
Learn as much as you can about the suspected illness before broaching the topic — through books, articles, brochures and other resources from reliable health organizations and medical professionals. The National Eating Disorders Association and the National Alliance for Eating Disorders are great places to start.
Pick a Neutral, Safe Location
Find a place to talk that is neutral and safe, such as a nearby park. Avoid public places where food or drinks are the main draw, as it may feel uncomfortable and lead the person to feel defensive, angry and emotional.
Though you might anticipate the conversation will be centered on eating disorders, don’t be surprised if other topics such as depression and anxiety are brought up. Listen to the person’s concerns — whatever they may be.
It may be tough to hear the thoughts, concerns and issues the person is facing, especially if it’s something you don’t personally agree with. Don’t get drawn into a discussion about weight or appearance or share disapproval of their behavior or beliefs. Focus on being empathetic and nonjudgmental.
Use the MHFA Action Plan (ALGEE)
You may be nervous or unsure about talking to someone you suspect has an eating disorder. The Mental Health First Aid Action Plan (ALGEE) can guide you through delivering safe and effective support to someone in need. The plan takes into account that everyone is different and that each person has their own identity, challenges and experiences.
According to MHFA, when you talk to your loved one, approach them with empathy. Do not try to change their perspective or behavior, and don’t comment positively or negatively about weight or appearance. Instead, focus on the behaviors that concern you. Allow the person to discuss topics other than food, weight or exercise.
Your role is not to diagnose someone or solve the problem — it is to provide support and information. By using tips from Mental Health First Aid, you can #BeTheDifference and offer much-needed help.
Still unsure about how to support those around you who may be experiencing an eating disorder or another mental health or substance use challenge? Take Mental Health First Aid today and join the 2.9+ million people around the country certified to identify, understand and respond.
Mental Health First Aid. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA. National Council for Behavioral Health d/b/a National Council for Mental Wellbeing.
National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD). (2021). Eating disorder statistics. https://anad.org/eating-disorders-statistics/