Mind & Spirit

What to do if someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder

What to do if someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder

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Mind & Spirit

What to do if someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder

Eating disorders affect hundreds of thousands of Canadians and have one of the highest mortality rates among psychiatric disorders—but there’s very little funding for treatment, services or research. 

First, some myth-busting: eating disorders are not just about wanting to be skinnier, or liking going to the gym. They aren’t choices. Instead, they’re diagnosed psychiatric illnesses that affect between 600,000 and 900,000 Canadians—and that’s a conservative estimate.

Deborah S. Berlin-Romalis, executive director at Sheena’s Place in Toronto, commends campaigns that bring awareness to eating disorders: “Campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk have helped bring the much-needed attention to mental health, but we still have a long way to go,” she says.

Therapists can be expensive, hospital admittance is intimidating and family and friends just don’t seem to get it. And trying to support someone through an eating disorder is tough, too. Resources on both ends just aren’t easy to find.

To put it into perspective, at a 2014 speech given to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, Dr. Leora Pinhas shone a light on eating disorder funding in Canada. In the last five years, $7.5 million has been spent on operating grants for eating disorders. This sounds like a decent number until you hear that $86 million is spent on the same grants for schizophrenia, even though eating disorders are more prevalent and can be just as severe. This lack of funding means fewer resources, services and treatment options that are affordable and easy for those suffering with an eating disorder to reach.

Unfortunately, stigma around eating disorders is still there, but with the right approach, bringing it up to someone you love can be more helpful than you know. Here’s what you can do if you suspect a loved one is suffering:

1. Be prepared for any reaction.
Eating disorders can have severe physical effects on someone struggling with one, but remember that the it's also a mental health issue, and they may not be ready to accept or acknowledge it. According to the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, educating yourself and being prepared for your loved one's feelings of denial or anger is important. But it is just as important to put yourself out there, let them know what you’re noticing and offer support and understanding, even if they haven’t admitted it to themselves yet.

2. Use the right language.
It is the most important not to accuse, assume or come across as judgmental. If you suspect they will have reservations about opening up, make it about your feelings. Use started such as “I feel” “I care” or “I’m worried that…” instead of “You have” “You’re making me worried” or “You need help.” This will allow your loved one to feel comfortable instead of confronted.

3. Know boundaries.
Make sure not to take on the role of a therapist or doctor. Bring yourself down from an authoritative position and speak on a level in which you both relate. Speaking as if you are diagnosing them, or dominating the conversation by asserting what you think they are going through may discourage them from opening up about what’s really going on.

4. Remember that it's okay to be overwhelmed.
No one said that you had to be the epitome of strength and knowledge during this time. Berlin-Romalis explained that loved ones of those struggling with eating disorders go all the time to resource centres, often visiting in desperation, needing and wanting information, resources and support. “They are often overwhelmed by their loved one's eating disorder, and their pain is heightened by social isolation, stigma and shame.”


Where to find help

These support centres across Canada offer resources and information to those struggling with an eating disorder, as well as their families and friends.

Kelty Eating Disorders, Vancouver, BC
Located in the Mental Health Building of the BC Children’s Hospital, Kelty offers a number of services to assist those struggling with eating disorders, as well as their families. Services include: information and resources, peer support from people who have experience with eating disorders either personally or in their families, more options for support and treatment, free educational events, tips for self-help and prevention, and a vast online catalogue and information centre that provides a crisis hotline.

Everything Kelty offers is also free of charge.

Sheena’s Place, Toronto, Ont.
This professionally facilitated support service centre is the only free-of-charge organization in the GTA dealing with eating disorder awareness and support. Their goal is to remove barriers or stigma related to accessing help for eating disorders by operating on a self-referral basis—so no diagnosis, doctor’s referral or fee is required, which opens up the opportunity for people to get help even if they haven’t been officially diagnosed, or are struggling to open up about it.

Berlin-Romalis is happy there is a realistic place for people to go. “Our clients tell us that they love Sheena's Place because it feels like home—our agency is located in a beautiful old house that provides a feeling of comfort from the minute you walk in the door. Our clients can come for a 1.5-hour group session during the day or in the evenings after school or work. We provide a level of convenience and accessibility. We do not have wait lists. If someone calls us, that person will receive a call back within 72 hours.”

All their staff members and facilitators are trained and have background experience in mental health work.

Eating Disorders Nova Scotia, Halifax, NS
Operating since 2014, Eating Disorders Nova Scotia (EDNS) is a community-based organization offering support to those with eating disorders. The basis of the organization is a focus on peer support with others who are familiar with what individuals are going through. Although the mental health system in Canada is gaining recognition and working towards a better tomorrow, it is still confusing and difficult to navigate. EDNS provides assistance in this as well, to advocate for the prevention, treatment and support of eating disorders.

Programs at EDNS are free of charge, and do not require a referral or diagnosis, making it easier for those on the east coast to access the help they need.

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What to do if someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder

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