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Breaking the Silence: Supporting Loved Ones with Eating Disorders

By Niku Sedarat


In recent years, there has been a rampant increase in the prevalence of eating disorders and disordered eating among youth and adolescents. The COVID-19 pandemic, academic pressures, and various social stressors have contributed to a breeding ground conducive to the development of eating disorders in young individuals. However, this is not a novel issue; eating disorders have been affecting youth for decades. According to the National Eating Disorder Association, 22% of children and adolescents worldwide have exhibited signs of disordered eating.

Undoubtedly, discussing eating disorders openly and without judgment is vital. Despite having the second-highest mortality rate among psychiatric illnesses (second only to opiate addiction), numerous myths, stigmas, and misconceptions persist, subjecting those dealing with these mental health challenges to scrutiny.

A prevalent misconception is the belief that individuals choose to have an eating disorder for attention or aesthetic reasons. This idea is inaccurate. Eating disorders, like many mental health challenges, are not choices. They result from a combination of underlying genetic, psychological, and social factors. Blaming individuals for having an eating disorder is not only fallacious but also emotionally burdensome. Another stereotype is that people with eating disorders are always excessively thin. While this may be true for some, eating disorders do not discriminate based on body size or weight. Anyone, even those who appear "normal," can have an eating disorder. Dispelling this stereotype is crucial for acknowledging the body diversity of those affected.

Educating ourselves about the myths, risk factors, symptoms, and causes of eating disorders is a vital step that loved ones can take to better understand these disorders. This knowledge helps prevent the perpetuation of false and unhelpful myths that can harm individuals struggling with eating disorders.

While educating ourselves is foundational, the next step is to embrace our loved ones. Given the high mortality rate and the impact on daily activities like eating—that many of us don’t give a second doubt, eating disorders can be challenging to cope with and recover from. As loved ones, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the strength it takes to choose recovery and avoid triggering and harmful comments.

Remember, as a loved one, it's not your responsibility to "cure" someone's eating disorder. Instead, your role is to provide a compassionate shoulder for your loved one to confide in and lean on during challenging and positive moments. Be present throughout the highs and lows of their recovery, and be mindful of the language used around them. Avoid reiterating harmful myths perpetuated by diet culture, such as discussing weight, calories, dieting, body image, and similar topics. Cutting ties with deeply internalized diet culture ideas requires immense effort for someone with an eating disorder. Reemphasizing those notions can make this already challenging process even more difficult.

Try to listen to your loved one currently struggling with an eating disorder. If you are unsure of their needs, ask them directly. Be especially mindful and sensitive during difficult periods like mealtimes. Eating together, for example, can help normalize this vital behavior.

Lastly, as a loved one, know this is not your fault. Rather than dwelling on causes, focus your energy on being the best support possible now. Establish personal boundaries, prioritize your own mental health, and understand that it's okay to take a step back.

Empower your loved ones with eating disorders to seek support. Encourage help-seeking behaviors and familiarize yourself with available resources. Treatment often involves therapy, nutritional counseling, and sometimes hospitalization. Consult a medical professional to determine the best course for your loved one.

Be aware of community-based resources, such as:

For Parents with Eating Disorders:

ANAD Helpline: 1 (888) 375-7767

National Alliance for Eating Disorders Helpline: 1 (866) 662-1235

Diabulimia Helpline: 1 (425) 985-3635

Educating yourself, embracing your loved one, and empowering them to seek support provides a compassionate framework for helping someone with an eating disorder. Remember, recovery is not linear—there will be ups and downs. Focus on being fully present through it all without placing blame on yourself or others. This is no one's fault. Most importantly, prioritize your own mental health first and foremost; you can only truly help your loved one when you've taken care of your own well-being. By taking care of yourself, you equip yourself to be the caring, patient, and understanding presence that your loved one needs and appreciates. 



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