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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

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Eating Disorders: When to Step In

A brief overview of eating disorders on college campuses and when friends should step in and intervene.
The emotional realization that a friend has an eating disorder—unfortunately, far too many of us can relate. We’ve experienced the feelings of helplessness, the desire to intervene, and the stomach-churning urge to seek help.
You’re at dinner, and a friend picks at her food. She takes a few bites, and then awkwardly places her napkin on top. “I’m full,” she says, smiling. You’ve spent the day together, and you noticed that she’s shied away from food since morning. You sense that something isn’t quite right.
That’s just the beginning.
Over time, you watch her collarbones slowly begin to protrude. You see her jeans loosen around her increasingly bone-thin waist. You realize that your friend constitutes one of the 24 million people, of all ages and genders, suffering from an eating disorder.
We all want to look out for our friends—but we’re adults. There’s a fine line between intervention and nosiness, but we feel morally obligated to step in. Friends have each other’s backs, right?
What do I do?
Should I call my friend's parents?  The health center?
Do I accept that they’ve made their own decision?
Most college women can relate to the desire to control weight.  A study conducted by the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders (ANAD) found that “91% of women surveyed on a college campus had attempted to control their weight through dieting.”  Such statistics give us the empathy that we need to approach our friend. 
According to psychologist Ann Kearney-Cooke for the Huffington Post, the intervention needs to come from a place of compassion. Although disordered behavior can be frustrating, you must confront the situation with kindness and calmness.
  • Speak to them one-on-one.
  • State what you've seen.
  • State exactly what you feel.
  • Talk about what you'd like your friend to do.
  • Don’t force labels.
  • Be open about your own experiences and vulnerability.
Look for a quiet place to talk, a place without distractions. Voice what you feel—what you’ve seen and why you are concerned. Focus on relating to your friend. Discuss your own vulnerabilities and weakness. End the conversation by letting him or her know that you’re there for them, always, and just want them to be happy or healthy.
For a more detailed description of how to intervene, visit the ANAD website.
Students, Ethics

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