The number of young people suffering with eating disorders in the UK has increased exponentially in the last 12 months. The rhetoric around the fact Covid-19 can be even more deadly in obese patients triggered new cases, while the sense of an overall loss of control meant many with preexisting conditions deteriorated further while isolated under lockdown. The tragic loss of Big Brother contestant Nikki Grahame has brought the reality of eating disorders to the forefront, but, as The Guardian reports, professionals anticipate a “tsunami” of patients needing treatment for anorexia, bulimia or binge eating in the wake of the pandemic, so it’s more important than ever to be aware of potential triggers and symptoms. Supporting someone with an eating disorder can feel incredibly isolating and upsetting. It’s very common for friends and family to experience feelings of despair, anger and resentment when somebody close to them is battling with these issues. Often, it can feel easier to say nothing than to risk saying the wrong thing. Here, Miss Vogue rounds up the ways in which you can usefully offer support, as advised by Beat, the UK’s leading eating disorder charity.
Be alert to changes in their behaviour
It’s wrong to assume that the symptoms of an eating disorder are limited to dramatic weight loss. As Beat’s Tom Quinn explains, changes in a person’s behaviour can often be a tell-tale sign. “These will be different depending on what kind of eating disorder they may have, and may not all necessarily apply,” he says. “[What’s] most important to remember is that you’ll probably notice changes to how someone behaves before changes to how they look.” Such shifts could include, but are not limited to, a loss of confidence; worrying about weight and a focus on comparison; an obsessive attitude to food and exercise; acting secretive, especially around food and mealtimes; mood swings; difficulty concentrating, and perfectionism.
Encourage them to talk
As is so often the case with a problem, talking about an eating disorder can be an important first step towards tackling it. When it comes to the friend you suspect is struggling, bear in mind that you might not be the right person for them to open up to, or that they might not be ready to share just yet. “You may like to ask them how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking, and encourage them to share their feelings if they feel comfortable,” says Tom. But, he warns, try not to push, or to make assumptions about what they’re going through. “[It] can be helpful to remind them you can hear they’re upset, and how difficult things are, and that you’ll be there to help them if they need you,” he says. You can also encourage them to share their feelings with a trusted adult, like a parent or teacher. Similarly, if you suspect they might be seriously unwell and attempting to hide it, you should tell a trusted adult, Tom adds.
Encourage them to seek professional help
Whilst your support as a close friend or loved one may well be invaluable, professional help is the best resource available to anyone struggling with disordered eating. Whether it’s a psychiatrist-led support or self-help group, one-on-one therapy, or a visit to a dietitian, there’s a range of options to consider. For a full list of eating disorder services near you, head to Beat’s website.
Don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re doing
When a close friend is dealing with something as harrowing as an eating disorder, it’s normal to feel reluctant to address it with them directly for fear of how they might react. For many, a genuine “how are you?” can be a hugely helpful moment of connection, and can serve as an opportunity for them to be honest and open about what they’re going through, without you seeming overbearing.
Remember that it’s a mental as well as a physical disease
Eating disorders are never just about food, points out Beat. It might be tempting to simply sit this person down and order them to eat, but that will only alienate them further. You need to let them know that you’re on their side. If there is a specific life moment or event that triggered their illness — like the coronavirus pandemic — gently encourage them to share this with you. But remember, eating disorders are extremely complex, and there may well be no single catalyst. It can be helpful to refer to the disease as a third person, advises Beat. For example: “I don’t think that’s you talking, it’s the anorexia”.
Don’t applaud their efforts at mealtimes
“We may be trying REALLY hard and perhaps you’ve noted that we’re making progress. Maybe we ate more quickly, tried a new food, forwent a ritual or ate more food than in previous meals. Each of these is an amazing achievement but acknowledging it will halt us in our tracks. We’re trying hard but the anorexic voice is ANGRY with us,” Dr Pooky Knightsmith Hesmondhalgh, a suffering anorexic, wrote in a piece published by Beat. “If your loved one has done something that you feel they should be really proud of, save it up and mention it at another time. It needs to be a time when they are neither worried about their last meal nor anxious about the next one.”
Recognise that recovery will take time
An eating disorder is not the sort of illness you can send a “get well soon” card for. It’s as much a mental disorder as it is a physical one, and offering a careless platitude – even a well-intentioned one – could appear dismissive.
Avoid verbal triggers
The actor Lily Collins, who played an anorexia sufferer in To the Bone (2017), told how a family friend told her she “looked great” during filming. People can be thoughtless when it comes to compliments. Beat suggests boycotting the use of phrases like, “You’re looking well”, or “You’re looking healthier”, during your friend’s recovery. “Comments on appearance, even if they’re meant well, can sometimes be interpreted negatively,” says Tom. But don’t be afraid to compliment your friend on things entirely unrelated to their appearance – it will help them feel valued. “It’s also a good idea to avoid talking about your own weight or diet,” he adds.
Source: Vogue, April 2021