How to talk to a loved one with an eating disorder

Carmen BryceBlog posts

National Eating Disorder Awareness Week (#NEDAW17) is coming to a close.

The theme of this years campaign is “It’s Time to Talk About It” in an effort to open the conversation around eating disorders and reduce the stigma.

Eating disorders are characterised by irregular patterns of eating. Among the most common examples of disorders include anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder. It is estimated that around 200,000 individuals in Ireland are affected by eating disorders (Expert Group on Mental Health Policy, 2006). 87% of all admissions are female, but the numbers of males being affected by eating disorders is increasing, with 1 in 10 people who attended an eating disorder support group being male (Health Research Board, 2015).

From my perspective, these high figures are not at all surprising. From a very young age, the pages of my pre-teen magazines were plastered with images of my favourite singers and actresses dolled up to the nines. I didn’t understand back then. I didn’t know that their bouncy voluminous curls were a result of a head full of extensions, that their flawless complexion was  the work of a professional makeup artist and hours of painstaking photoshop. As many other people do all too regularly, I compared my flat hair and acne-prone skin to these images, and worried that I was inadequate.

What didn’t help, of course, was that I was in an all-girls school, an environment which bred insecurity and comparison of the self to others. I was surrounded by conversation which, in one way or another, always came back to looks – “My legs are too short…I have so many stretch marks…my outfit makes me look fat…I’m starting a new detox diet”. We were trapped in a toxic environment, consumed by the pressure to be “perfect”.

The unfortunate thing is, we live in a social media age. There is no escape from these negatives “ideals” imposed upon young people today. Snapchat stories are full of people’s “perfect” meals. Instagram is swarmed with photos of tanned and toned people, adorned with a #summerbod. We use social media as an escape from the real world, but it only serves to encourage our insecurities even more.

Jane O’Riordan, the Senior Occupational Therapist with St. John of God’s, has suggested that the constant bombardment of low-calorie diets and high-exercise regimes on social media portrays a very negative message and plays a massive role in the encouragement of eating disorders.

How to talk to a loved one who you suspect might have an eating disorder:

Before you approach the topic: Get informed! You wouldn’t build a house without a plan, and you can’t rebuild well-being without understanding. Researching eating disorders will allow you to gain some insight into the conflicting array of emotions your loved one is feeling, and the distorted thoughts that accompany them. This blog post addresses the possible causes of eating disorders. Also consider approaching a mental health professional to ask for advice on how to handle the situation.

Timing is crucial: Ensure that you choose an appropriate time to approach the conversation with your loved one. Choose a private location, away from any hustle and bustle. Do your best to avoid the risk of interruption. You want your loved one to feel safe, respected and confident enough to open up to you.

During the conversation: Listen carefully, don’t judge. Avoid using vague language. Be specific about your concerns and what your have observed, but avoid attributing blame. “I’m concerned that you’ve become more withdrawn lately, and I want to help you if you’ll let me” is much more effective than “You never talk to us anymore and you never want to go out, why are you so moody?”. Use the information and resources you’ve researched to help your loved one and show that you empathise with them.

Don’t just leave it there: Show that you are willing to continue supporting your loved one. Provide them with resources that can help them through their eating disorder. Whether this be counselling at MyMind, or support from other services such as Bodywhys, it is important that your loved one feels supported throughout their journey to wellbeing.

If you or anyone you know has an eating disorder please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us at 076-680-1060 or visit our website to book an appointment.

By MyMind Intern Sarah Walsh