We live in a time in which, luckily, more and more people are talking about mental and physical health struggles and becoming allies to their friends and loved ones that are struggling. A lot of people don’t know how to help friends struggling with mental health issues like depression, an eating disorder, or PTSD, especially if they haven’t had any training or experience with these issues firsthand. It’s just simply not realistic for everyone to go back to school for a counseling degree. Just because you haven’t had official training or firsthand experience doesn’t mean you can’t help a friend who is struggling. As someone who has dealt with an eating disorder in the past and been blessed with people who were allies and friends throughout, here are three simple ways you can help a friend with an eating disorder and help make a difference in their lives.
Learn as much as you can about different eating disorders
A huge step in being an ally is being educated. The internet is your oyster, but make sure you are using reliable outlets, like ANAD or NEDA. Eating disorders can seem black and white when you’re only getting your information from Twitter and movies, but there is a lot more to eating disorders than bulimia and anorexia. Once you learn about different types of eating disorders, you’ll be more aware of how to spot the ones that may otherwise slip under the radar, including orthorexia and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Like any issue, being informed can only help you in the long-run. You can be a better ally when you know what you’re working with and know what you can do next.
Make regular meal plans with them
A lot of people ask me what they can do on a daily basis to help someone struggling with an eating disorder. Many of them are surprised when I tell them to make dinner plans. When I was struggling in college, I would often just skip entire meals and no one would be any wiser. But when I had a standing six PM dinner reservation with a friend, I was forced to not only go to the dining hall and eat something to avoid raising alarm. Some of my friends didn’t even realize how helpful it was to me long term to just get me into the dining hall. Like I’ll explain later, forcing someone to eat, eat healthier, or eat less is probably not going to be as effective as you might hope. In fact, it will likely only alienate someone struggling from you. Just being there and creating a safe environment in which they can eat what they feel like, whether it’s a single crouton or a whole salad or a chicken sandwich, is a great step. It also allows you to kind of monitor their eating habits so you can get a better understanding of where their issues might lie.
Don’t threaten them
Telling someone who doesn’t want to eat that you’re going to force-feed them or that they’re going to starve to death is not effective. Sorry to break it to you. Likely, all you’re going to accomplish is making them cry, get defensive, or not want to see you or talk to you again. People struggling with eating disorders know what they’re doing. They are making conscious decisions every day and likely researching the worst thing that could happen to them. No, they don’t need you to remind them. They don’t need you to threaten to not be your friend anymore or to tattle to someone who can’t help them, etc. In some cases, you may find that telling someone who can help your struggling friend is useful, but it isn’t always the best option. If you are genuinely concerned about your friend’s eating habits, recommend they get help. Support them on their journey to recovery. Be there for them whether they’re eating or not and in moments outside of their disorder. Don’t make everything about food. Don’t threaten them, even when you’re angry about what they are doing to themselves. It’s not effective and it’s not being an ally.