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Eating disorders

Helping someone with an eating disorder

Is it an emergency?

Get medical help immediately if the person:

  • has deliberately injured themselves
  • is expressing thoughts of suicide or of killing someone else
  • is disorientated (does not know who they are, where there are, or what time of day it is)
  • has delusions (false beliefs) or hallucinations (seeing, hearing, feeling or smelling things that do not exist)
  • is confused or not making sense
  • is complaining of chest pain
  • has a pulse that is very slow (less than 50 beats per minute) or very fast (more than 120 beats per minute), or an irregular heartbeat
  • has collapsed or is too weak to walk
  • is experiencing fainting spells
  • has blood in their bowel movements, urine or vomit
  • has cold, clammy skin or a very low body temperature (less than 35°C)
  • is vomiting several times a day
  • seems to be dehydrated
  • has painful muscle spasms.

If the person has any of these symptoms, call 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand, or visit the emergency department at your nearest hospital. Adapted from: Mental Health First Aid's Eating disorders: First aid guidelines.

How to help someone with an eating disorder

If you are the family, friend or carer of someone with an eating disorder, these are some things you can do to help:

  • Offer ongoing support to the person, including reassurance, listening, comfort and assistance to get help.
  • Give the person hope for recovery by reassuring them that people with eating disorders can and do get better.
  • If the person has not responded to treatment for eating disorders, reassure them that this does not mean that they will not succeed in the future.
  • Encourage the person to be proud of the positive steps they are taking toward recovery.
  • Suggest to the person that they surround themselves with people who are supportive.

Things that do not help

  • Do not let issues of food dominate your relationship with the person and try to avoid conflict or arguments over food.
  • Try not to give advice about weight loss or exercise.
  • Try not to reinforce the idea that physical appearance is vital for happiness and success.
  • Try to avoid comments about the person’s weight or appearance.

What if the person doesn’t want help?

Generally, an adult has the right to refuse treatment. But they can be treated without their consent if their life is in danger or if they lack the capacity to consent.

If the situation is not an emergency, continue with your support, and be open, approachable and nonjudgmental. It is OK to tell the person that you are concerned and that you care for them.

If the person won’t agree to go to their appointment:

  • Let them talk about what is worrying them.
  • Give them emotional support and encouragement.
  • Talk about what kind of practical help the person needs to be able to go to their appointments.
  • Contact the health-care team for advice.

Looking after yourself

Having a loved one with an eating disorder does not mean that you are a ‘bad’ parent, partner, brother, sister, child or friend. There is no evidence to suggest that any family dysfunction is the cause of eating disorders.

You will probably feel some pain, suffering, sadness, guilt or despair of your own. Being the main support person can be hard work and it may sometimes feel that you are getting nowhere.

Never blame yourself.

You are not alone. It can be very hard to understand a person’s eating disorder.

More about caring for someone with a mental illness

Page last reviewed Aug 2015 | C1037V1

This is a general guide only, and does not replace individual medical advice. Please speak to your doctor for advice about your situation. The RANZCP is not liable for any consequences arising from relying on this information. Subject matter experts, people with lived experience of mental illness and carers all contributed to this fact sheet.