How to spot the signs a family member is suffering – and how you can best help to support them

Soaring numbers of people are now suffering from eating disorders – with many of those affected unable to get the psychological and medical support they need.

Overstretched and underfunded NHS services mean that a person living with a condition like anorexia or bulimia will increasingly rely on a relative or friend to help them.

With that in mind a leading expert has shared her advice on the signs to look out for at home – which could indicate a relative is suffering from an eating disorder.

Counsellor and author Lynn Crilly, who specialises in treating people living with eating disorders, said she is confronted on a daily basis by the pain and trauma these conditions have both on sufferers and those around them.

Lynn, the author of Hope With Eating Disorders, (Second Edition) said: “When living and coping with the dreadful effects of a loved one who has an eating disorder, it can put an enormous strain on personal and professional relationships and the toll it can take on all concerned can be devastating.

“Every day within my work I see the shattering effects that mental illness can have on the sufferer and their loved ones, and every day I am continually confronted by the pain and trauma that mental illness can bring to the home environment and everyone in it.

“I have seen and experienced at first-hand how it can rip families apart and drive a wedge through once solid relationships, bringing them crashing to their knees.“There is no definitive, right or wrong way to work together as a unit in the home, every situation, every sufferer, every family unit and every home environment is different, but by everyone sticking to the basic fundamentals and working closely together, for the benefit of everyone involved, you will be on the right path.

“Eating Disorders are a complex life threatening mental illness and without the support of a professional who understands the complexes of an eating disorder it is then a huge responsibility for the sufferers loved ones and in many cases this support can be the difference between life and death.

Breakout box: How to recognise the warning signs

Eating disorders are a mental illness and, while you may think the physical signs may be obvious, that is not always the case, and particularly not in the early stages. Being alert to early problems is important as the sooner your loved one receives help, the more positive the outcome is likely to be.

First and foremost, be aware of any changes in their character. You know your loved one best and if you notice behaviour that is out of the ordinary for them, stay alert to any other changes that may be happening. With hindsight, many carers see that their loved one became angry, withdrawn, forgetful and or pre-occupied.  This is important because it is the outward sign of the turmoil they are fighting in their own head. It is important to remember that these changes can develop slowly, but with time, they could advance into something bigger and more sinister.

Look out for the following:

  • There may be some sort of secretive behaviour around food.
  • They may have rituals either before, during or after eating, such as taking an extra interest
  • in how it is prepared, or always going to the bathroom after a meal.
  • They may make excuses to avoid family mealtimes.
  • Hobbies they once enjoyed may be pushed aside, friends and social occasions avoided.
  • They can often seem tired, stressed and or pre-occupied.
  • Two important ways you can help:

Refrain from reinforcing disordered eating behaviour:

“Family and friends can inadvertently become involved in the behaviours of an eating disorder sufferer. It may seem, at the time, the only way to help reduce the anguish that the sufferer is experiencing. By giving into their requests not to join family meals, for example, the carer is unintentionally reinforcing and strengthening the illness as opposed to challenging and overcoming it.  If possible, talk together as a family, with the sufferer, about how to tackle their illness and make sure that everyone in the home and wider circle is working towards the same goal.

Be as kind and patient as possible:

“Irrespective of their age, or position in the family, allowing the sufferer the time, space and security they need on their recovery path will also enable them to open up and relax a little more around those closest to them. By vocalising and acknowledging to the sufferer that you accept and understand how difficult things are for them, empathising and reassuring them that there is nothing they could say or do to make you stop loving or caring for them. This will give them the courage and the confidence they need to continue in the right direction.”