Ask a Therapist
By: The Counseling and Psychological Services Team
Dear Therapist: I am concerned about a friend who I think may have an eating disorder. She has lost a lot of weight over the past semester and sometimes I think I can hear her throwing up in the bathroom. I have tried to go to meals with her in hopes that she will eat more, but she usually only eats a salad. She also goes to the gym at least twice a day for at least an hour each time. I am worried about my friend but I am afraid that if I confront her she will get mad at me and then she won’t have any support at all. What can I do to help?
This is an extremely difficult situation. It can be very hard to watch a friend do harm to themselves and feel as though there is nothing that can be done to help. It sounds like your friend may be suffering from an eating disorder. Eating disorders are very serious, so you are right to be concerned.
When left untreated, eating disorders can lead to permanent physical damage ranging from hair loss to heart damage, osteoporosis and the inability to conceive. They can even result in death. In fact, eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder, and a suicide rate that is 50 times higher than that of the general population. Many people recover from eating disorders when they are treated at an early stage. Unfortunately, the longer eating disorders are left untreated, the more likely they are to cause serious medical and psychiatric damage.
College students – mostly women, but also a growing number of men – do not seek treatment for many reasons. They may be trying to hide their disorder due to shame. They may cope with the disorder by avoiding treatment. They may not even realize that they have an eating disorder or that it is a serious health problem.
Approaching a friend who you suspect has an eating disorder is not an easy task. If you are worried about a friend, but feel as though you can’t talk to them about it yourself, make sure that you alert someone else that you know can help, such as a friend, family member, or campus professional.
If you do feel comfortable approaching your friend, below is a list of some things to keep in mind when talking to them:
- Avoid approaching them when food is present, they will more than likely already be stressed. Your first approach should be at a non-mealtime situation.
- Assure them that they are not alone and that you love them and want to help in any way that you can.
- Encourage them to seek help.
- Do not comment on their weight or appearance.
- Do not blame the individual and do not get angry with them.
- Be patient, expect to be rebuffed, stay calm and focused.
- Do not take on the role of a therapist – but do encourage them to seek one out, and keep checking in on the progress of this if they agree to do so.
It is important to remember that when you first approach your friend, they may react with anger or they may deny that anything is wrong. Stay calm, nonjudgmental and try and make it clear that you’re not passing judgment, but that you are concerned for their well-being. People suffering from an eating disorder are most likely to recover when they are surrounded by supportive, loving friends and family.
Watching someone you love develop and suffer from an eating disorder can be frightening. You might find that it affects you in a negative way causing you to experience feelings of guilt and confusion. Remember that the most you can do to help someone recover is guide them towards the treatment that they need.
Friends may also benefit from some professional help, too, since coping with a friend who has a serious illness like an eating disorder can be very difficult. Below is a list of local and national resources for you and your friend.
- SMCM Counseling and Psychological Services – 240-895-4289
- The Renfrew Center – 1-800-RENFREW
- Sheppard Pratt, The Center for Eating Disorders – 410-938-5252
- National Eating Disorders Association Helpline – 800-931-2237