Recently I was asked for advice about a teen who suspected that her friend has an eating disorder. What should she do?
An important thing to realize is that people are very effective at hiding their eating disorders. That means they will often be far along and deep into the patterns and problems by the time you start noticing. At that point it’s much harder to help someone.
As good of a friend as you are, this person needs more than a friend right now. She needs serious, professional help. Talk to a school counselor, your own parent, or your friend’s parent, so that they can get your friend the help she needs.
In the meantime, you can still support your friend and assure her that you’re not going to judge her if she wants to confide in you. Eating disorders can start from feeling pressured, so create a safe environment where she can talk about these pressures, whether that’s about how she looks, her relationships, schoolwork, sports or other groups she’s involved with.
You can also help by doing activities that will help you both feel good. Start a scrapbook or journal about things you like and accomplishments you’ve made (call it your “Book of Awesome!”). Watch videos at Soul Pancake or of TED Talks, or just your favourite goofy comedies. Make music or art together, or play sports that build her self-esteem.
Talk to your friend about your own difficulties, and what you’re doing to manage them. Ask her advice and let her help you, as well. Do everything that’s part of a normal friendship, even if she’s going through things you can’t relate to or understand.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, warning signs of eating disorders include:
- Low self-esteem
- Social withdrawal
- Claims of feeling fat when weight is normal or low
- Preoccupation with food, weight, counting calories and with what people think
- Denial that there is a problem
- Wanting to be perfect
- Intolerance of others
- Inability to concentrate
Ultimately, being a good friend means having the courage to expose the disorder when you notice these signs, so that the person can get the help she needs. Keeping secrets is important sometimes in friendship, but not in this case. When it comes to eating disorders, keeping secrets can be dangerous.