How to Help Someone with Eating and Body Image Issues

How to help a friend

If you are worried about your friend’s eating behaviors or attitudes, it is important to express your concerns in a loving and supportive way. It is also helpful to discuss your worries early on (if possible), rather than waiting until your friend has endured many of the damaging physical and emotional effects of eating disorders. In a private and relaxed setting, talk to your friend in a calm and caring way about the specific things you have seen or felt that have caused you to worry.

What to Say — Step by Step

Set a time to talk. Set aside a time for a private, respectful meeting with your friend to discuss your concerns openly and honestly in a caring, supportive way. Make sure you will be some place away from other distractions.

Communicate your concerns. Share your memories of specific times when you felt concerned about your friend’s eating or exercise behaviors. Explain that you think these things may indicate that there could be a problem that needs professional attention.

Ask your friend to explore these concerns with a counselor, doctor, nutritionist, or other health professional who is knowledgeable about eating issues. If you feel comfortable doing so, offer to help your friend make an appointment or accompany your friend on his/her first visit.

Avoid conflicts or a battle of the wills with your friend. If your friend refuses to acknowledge that there is a problem or any reason for you to be concerned, restate your feelings and the reasons for them and leave yourself open and available as a supportive listener.

Avoid placing shame, blame, or guilt on your friend regarding their actions or attitudes. Do not use accusatory “you” statements like, “You just need to eat.” Or, “You are acting irresponsibly.” Instead, use “I” statements. For example: “I’m concerned about you because you refuse to eat breakfast or lunch.” Or, “It makes me afraid to hear you vomiting.”
Avoid giving simple solutions. For example, “If you’d just stop, then everything would be fine!”

Express your continued support. Remind your friend that you care and want your friend to be healthy and happy.

Tell someone.  After talking with your friend, if you are still concerned with their health and safety, find a trusted adult or medical professional to talk to. This is probably a challenging time for both of you. It could be helpful for you, as well as your friend, to discuss your concerns and seek assistance and support from a professional.  Provide your friend with resources on CAPS.

How faculty/staff can help a student

Select a time to talk with the student when you are not rushed and also try to prevent interruptions.  Do not make a decision or judgment about the student without first speaking privately with him/her.

In a direct and non-punitive manner, indicate to the student all the specific observations that have aroused your concern.  Allow the student to respond.  If the student discloses information about problems, listen carefully, empathically, and non-judgmentally.

Your responsibilities are not to diagnosis or provide therapy.  It is the development of a compassionate and forthright conversation that ultimately helps a student in trouble find understanding, support, and the proper therapeutic resources.

If the information you receive is compelling, communicate to the student:

  • Your tentative sense that he or she might have an eating disorder.
  • Your conviction that the matter clearly needs to be evaluated.
  • Your understanding that participation in school, sports, or other activities will not be jeopardized unless health has been compromised to the point where such participation is dangerous.

Avoid an argument or battle of wills. Repeat the evidence, your concern, and if warranted your conviction that something must be done. Terminate the conversation if it is going nowhere or if either party becomes too upset. This impasse suggests the need for consultation from a professional.

Do not intentionally or unintentionally become the student’s therapist, savior, or victim. Attempts to “moralize,” develop therapeutic plans, closely monitor the person’s eating, adjust one’s life around the eating disorder, or cover for the person are not helpful.

Discuss and provide the available resources at CAPS to which the student can be referred. More information on eating disorder centers can be found under Treatment Centers for Eating Disorders.

If you have any questions regarding the resources available or how to approach a student, please call the CAPS office at 847-491-2151.

Source: Adapted from the National Eating Disorders Association (2012):