A Student's Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders

A Student’s Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are not limited to one particular type of person and they are not just in reaction to one particular type of problem. As with a lot of mental health problems, it’s unlikely that an eating disorder will just appear one day, and battling it is a struggle over a long time.

What an eating disorder looks like:

This is a particularly tricky bit. Let me say something really really clearly – you do not have to be stick thin to have an eating disorder. Oh, and for the love of god can we stop with the “but you don’t look like an anorexic”, are you serious?

Ranting part done, here’s some common traits:

  1. A fixation on food,
  2. Feeling guilt after having eaten too much in a day
  3. Fasting as a reaction to some other negative circumstances in your life,
  4. Fasting as a way of punishing yourself,
  5. Not fasting at all, but eating next-to-nothing.
  6. Purging after eating (commonly associated with Bulimia Nervosa)
A Student's Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders

Recognizing it in friends / yourself

As with all mental health problems, those of us suffering from EDs will commonly subconsciously ‘cry for help’ (not a phrase I enjoy using).

Look, in the real world your friend is quite unlikely to walk up and say “Hello I think I have anorexia nervosa because I spent an hour looking in the mirror pinpointing the parts of me I hate can you help?” (and if they do they’re probably the bravest/coolest person ever).

People may say things like “oh i don’t really bother eating i never seem to feel hungry” or “urgh i ate so much over Christmas i’m going to fast tomorrow”, or, the worst one “I wish I looked like [generic Instagram model’s name] I’m so fat”. These throwaway comments are commonly just that, throwaway comments, but pay attention and ask if they’re okay. Trust me, it’s worth asking the question.

What to do if your friend is suffering

So you’ve spotted a few red flags, and you’ve decided to talk to your friend about it, but, like, how the hell do you start?

EDs come from other mental health problems. And you can learn what to do about those here. Make them feel loved and wanted, and most importantly comfortable in their own skin, and you’re half way there.

They probably aren’t going to open up to you the first time – if you’re in person the smart money says they’ll look at you one of two ways: like a deer in headlights or like you’re crazy.

If they haven’t acknowledged it themselves the may not welcome you acknowledging it, so start slow but be consistent.

A Student's Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders

Personal Tips:

So the generic advice above is good, but how do you look after somebody without making them feel like a charity case? Especially with all the stress and chop/change of University.

1. Find something they love, and make them love it again.

The worst grips of ED look like other mental health problems – you’ve lost touch with something that you used to enjoy. I have a very close friend who was a brilliant pianist and singer, only, he hadn’t done anything for months. So we sat and talked about music for hours on end, slowly but surely a passion returned, and once that’s there there’s less room for counting calories.

2. Be strong.

Not just strong with them, but yourself. What if you strike a bargain with your friend to eat three meals a day, and he only manages 1 and a breakfast bar? Your strength here isn’t what you think – do not discourage.

“I said three come on are you even trying” is possibly the worst thing you could do. 1.5 is still better than zero – congratulate him, and say that, tomorrow at least, you’re going to go to 2.

3. Do not break their trust.

You have no idea how hard it is for people to accept they’re suffering and open up to somebody about it. Chances are parents, grandparents and doctors have all tried in the past so if he opens up to you you’re one lucky student. Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t do anything to make them feel like they arent in a safe space.

4. Remember, it’s worth it.

When my friend first went into recovery, he’d send me a Snapchat of his breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. It’s a little ‘prison camp,’ but it worked. That moved away to me just taking his word for it, to now we hardly talk about food. Their eyes are brighter and their face has filled out and they’re walking half an inch taller. Helping somebody through this is the most rewarding thing you’ll ever do.

A Student's Guide to Understanding Eating Disorders

Where to find help

Student services, the NHS and well being services offer lots of support, but the best place to go will always be someone you trust. Tell your friends if you’re struggling, or ask them if they’re okay. I promise, its worth it.

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