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Supporting someone with an eating disorder

If your friend or relative has an eating disorder, they will eventually have to get professional help.

If your friend or relative has an eating disorder, such as anorexia, bulimia or binge eating disorder, you will probably want to do everything you can to help them recover.

You're already doing a great job by finding out more about eating disorders and how to try to support them – it shows you care and helps you understand how they might be feeling.

Getting professional help from a doctor, practice nurse, or a school or college nurse will give your friend or relative the best chance of getting better. But this can be one of the most difficult steps for someone suffering from an eating disorder, so try to encourage them to seek help or offer to go along with them.

You can support them in other ways, too:

  • Keep trying to include them – they may not want to go out or join in with activities, but keep trying to talk to them and ask them along, just like before. Even if they don't join in, they will still like to be asked. It will make them feel valued as a person.
  • Try to build up their self-esteem – perhaps by telling them what a great person they are and how much you appreciate having them in your life.
  • Give your time, listen to them and try not to give advice or criticise – this can be tough when you don't agree with what they say about themselves and what they eat. Remember, you don't have to know all the answers. Just making sure they know you're there for them is what's important. This is especially true when it feels like your friend or relative is rejecting your friendship, help and support.

How are eating disorders treated?

Treatment will be different depending on the type of eating disorder your friend or relative has.

It will usually involve some kind of talking therapy because help with eating and putting on weight alone is usually not enough.

Your friend or relative will talk to a therapist about the emotional difficulties that led to their eating disorder, and they will learn healthier ways to cope with these feelings. Their treatment may also involve them working through a guided self-help programme.

During their treatment, they will also have regular health checks to look after their physical health.

Treatment will take place over a number of weeks so your friend or relative can get used to the changes slowly. The earlier they start, the better their chances of making a good recovery.

Find eating disorders services in your area

Read more about how eating disorders are treated.

Will they have to go into hospital?

Most people with eating disorders will not have to stay in hospital. They are seen as outpatients, which means they visit the hospital, for example, one day a week.

Some people who have a more advanced or serious eating disorder might need to visit the hospital more often or be admitted to hospital for more intensive support and treatment (known as inpatient care).

Should I visit them in hospital?

This depends on what your friend or relative wants, how you feel and what the treatment centre allows.

Let them know you're thinking of them and would like to visit. If this is not possible, you can always write or call to let them know you're still there to support them.

Can people be forced to get help for eating disorders? 

If your friend or relative has lost an extreme amount of weight, they may be in danger of starving themselves and developing serious complications. They may not be able to think clearly because of the lack of food and may have to be forced into life-saving treatment.

In these circumstances, their doctor may decide to admit them to hospital for specialist treatment. This can only be done after the doctor has consulted with colleagues and they all agree with the doctor's decision. This is called being sectioned and is done under the rules of the Mental Health Act.

Will they be cured when they come home?

Your friend or relative will still need your support. Most people with an eating disorder do recover and learn to use more positive ways of coping.

But recovery from an eating disorder can be very difficult and take a long time. Your friend or relative may even relapse into old behaviours, or have periods of living with their illness again during their recovery.

Part of them may want to get better, while the other part might be very scared about giving up the eating disorder. They might think: "I want to get better but just don't want to gain weight."

They will probably have good days and bad days. During times of stress, the eating difficulties may be more likely to return. Changing the way people with eating disorders think and feel is never easy, and it takes time.

The eating disorders charity Beat has lots more information and support services for people affected by eating disorders, as well as their friends and family.

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