How to Help Someone with Eating/Exercise or Body Image Issues
People often find it difficult to "confront" someone they believe might have an eating disorder. The difficulty may be due to the shame and secrecy often associated with the disorder or to having limited understanding of eating disorders. Or, hesitation it may be due to concerns about incorrectly “accusing” the person or not wanting to make the person’s eating disorder worse by upsetting them.
Below are guidelines to use when you offer help.
- Learn more about eating disorders. Knowledge is power.
The person you are about to help will sense and appreciate your knowledge and understanding, if you find out more about what it’s like to have an eating disorder. You can find books and online information in the Resources section of this website, or you can speak with a professional at the IU Health Center by requesting a consultation.
- Collect concrete information.
Write down the behaviors you’ve noticed, such as purging, skipping meals, compulsively exercising, overeating, and using laxatives, supplements and/or diet pills. Also write down signs of distress such as depressed or anxious mood, irritability, complaining of being tired and weak, dizziness or fainting, and difficulty concentrating. Be as objective as you can be in this data-collection process.
- Invite the person for a private talk.
After gathering this information you have learned about Eating Disorders or consulted with a professional, invite the person for a private talk. Begin by stating the facts/behaviors you have observed. For example, "I’ve noticed that you’ve said you’ve felt weak and tired for the past month,” "I was told that you usually exercise 2 hours each day," or "I’ve noticed that you seem sad most of the time lately." Use "I" statements to avoid any feeling of accusation from the person. Avoid blaming and making assumptions such as "You have caused a lot of concern among people who care about you" or "You have an eating disorder."
- Gently ask if she or he thinks help is needed.
You might say, "Based on my observations, I’m concerned about your health. I’m not sure if you have an eating disorder or some other concern, but a professional would be better able to know. Will you consider getting help? If so, I can help you contact the professionals who can help you."
- Sometimes people suffering from eating disorders will be ready to get help as soon as you reach out to them. Others will deny having any problems.
- If help is accepted, refer the person to Counseling & Psychological Services, the IU Health Center Medical Clinic, a Health & Wellness Dietitian, or a community Eating Disorder specialist. Let the person choose which resource s/he feels more comfortable with seeing first.
- If help is rejected, don’t give up. Denial is a common obstacle. After you have expressed your concern, allow the person time to consider what you have said. S/he may return to you in the future when s/he is ready for help. Continue noting your observations of his/her behavior, and approach the person again a bit later to ask if they’re willing to consider treatment. It is also important that you consult with a professional in order to help you determine if immediate action is needed. Don’t try to determine the seriousness of the Eating Disorder on your own, as this cannot be determined from what the person looks like on the outside. Remember: 1 in 10 people with an Eating Disorder will die from this illness, so speak with a professional.
- Know your limits.
You will likely continue to feel concerned for the person whether or not s/he seeks help. Tell the person you are open and available if s/he wants to talk to you, but do not overextend yourself and don’t take on the role of “food police”. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or drained as a result of helping, seek consultation from a professional