In the U.S., an estimated 20 million women and 10 million men will live with an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime. Despite our erasure in most research or media portrayals of the mental illness, Latinas experience EDs at rates comparable or greater than non-Latinas.
But while illnesses like anorexia, bulimia, binge eating disorder (BED) and EDNOS are more common than we think, information on what to do when we believe someone we know may be suffering alone is hard to come by. There’s no doubt that the initial conversation will be uncomfortable and difficult, but it could also be life-saving. Ahead, some supportive steps that can be taken when one believes a friend may have an eating disorder.
Get Educated. You can't talk about what you don't know. Before you even attempt a conversation, get more acquainted with what eating disorders are, what they look like, their contributing factors and recovery. The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) is an amazing resource with a wealth of information for you to learn about ED behaviors and familiarize yourself with the language.
Look Up Some Resources. When you talk with your friend about your concerns, you’ll want to be armed with resources so that, should they want to get help, you can support them through that process. Find out what options are available for them, from high school guidance counselors and on-campus college health centers to community organizations and online support groups. Make an appointment with a professional to learn what can be done for your loved one and pick up or print out brochures to bring with you and help them understand that they're not alone.
Don't Use Labels. You may have done a lot of research and think your friend is bulimic, but that's not a diagnosis you can give with your 48-hour crash course on EDs. Instead of labeling your friend with an eating disorder, express concern about their behavior.
Start Talking. Here's the scary part, the time to sit down and talk. Make sure the setting is as comfortable as possible, for the both of you. Go somewhere quiet, where you two are alone and away from distractions. Avoid a restaurant or anywhere with food that might increase their anxiety. In a non-accusatory way, start by identifying the things you've seen: the facts, like avoiding food or bingeing, that have caused your concern. Then, explain why those behaviors worry you. Tell them a bit about what you've learned from your research, without labeling them, and suggest some helpful resources.
Don’t Get Mad. Perhaps you did everything “right,” and they’re in denial of their disordered eating, acknowledge a problem but don’t want to seek help or become angry with you. All that can be frustrating, especially because you care about them and want to see them healthy and happy. Stay hopeful. Note that you know this is difficult and that you are there to support them or talk whenever they are ready.
Stay Supportive. Stay true to your word. Drop information, through brochures or books, and text them hotlines or recovery websites. But if what they’re asking from you is time or space, give them that. When it’s time, be there to listen and talk. They may not know it yet, but they are lucky to have you – just don’t tell them that.