A few weeks ago I had the privilege of speaking to an impressive group of collegiate female athletes at Salem State University. I was there largely to speak about how challenging and overwhelming the pressures of college can feel, specifically for young women. In a competitive and socially-driven environment, eating disorders are wildly common. Not to mention, you are expected to both take care of yourself for the first time and also be planning your future when you are only just beginning the long journey of figuring out who the hell you are and want to be.
To be honest, college, for me, was largely a disaster. At a highly competitive university, keeping up academically often felt like trying to just keep my head above water. Though the pressure of trying to “keep up appearances” was far more overwhelming. When it came to my body, my clothes, my social skills, I felt vastly inferior to the young women I was surrounded by. I believed I couldn’t compete with these women. And every day felt like a competition. I share this, not as a statement about where I went to school or the people that went there, but simply as my reality. Because I think it’s a reality for a lot of college students. These young women I spoke with are facing all of this plus the pressures to perform athletically. Many of them are held in high esteem as role models for others students and expected to be the “strong” ones; the ones who have it all together. In reality, no one really has it all together. Especially not at 20.
That’s not to say that universities can be held entirely responsible. As an adult I now understand that every experience is really very much what you make it. I do, however, feel that college campuses have a responsibility to prioritize the mental health of their students as much as they do the success of their athletic teams or their budgets for top of the line facilities. I commend the Salem State Athletic Department for working on doing just that for their student athletes.
One of the most poignant issues that came out of the discussion was the question of how best to support a friend or peer you know is struggling with disordered eating and emotional distress. Of course, every situation is different and, often there is no “right” answer for matters of this nature. That said, I can share what would have been most helpful to me while I was struggling and how I find that I can be most supportive of others struggling with eating disorders or depression.
- Focus on wanting to see THEM happy, not on how worried YOU are
For many struggling, their greatest fear is to be burden on those they care about; worrying their family and friends is the last thing they want to do, so reiterating that you are worried about them may not be the most helpful. Chances are they know you are worried. But this journey is about them, not about you. Instead, remind them that you love them, want to see them happy and healthy and that you are there to support them however they can accept that support.
- STOP talking and START listening
It’s actually good to ask questions to try to better understand where your friend is coming from (not questions to feed your own curiosity like “what did you eat today?”) Often, people really just want to feel “heard”. Whether or not you can relate to their struggle, you can open your mind and heart to listen. Many of us opt to say nothing in fear of saying the "wrong thing". But ignoring the issue is not constructive, so, rather than advising, aim to actively listen.
- Understand that you cannot fix this for them
You can support and love them but you can only control your own actions. Making them feel you are watching everything they eat (or don’t eat), or taking responsibility to make sure they show up at every appointment is not your job. If you are concerned that someone is in imminent danger, contact a parent or medial professional to seek help.
- Don’t comment on how thin they are
Talking about how thin someone is or how “good they look” after drastic weight loss can be detrimental. After losing a dramatic amount of weight, I thrived on people commenting on it – even if they did not mean it as a compliment. This person is likely consumed by thoughts of his or her body and how it appears to others. Any sort of comment on their body is likely only going to fuel that fire. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid the issue. Find areas of focus other than their physical appearance (i.e. how they are feeling emotionally or handling a stressful situation they may be facing) to engage them with.
- Share your own vulnerability
Consider sharing with them instances in your own life where you have had to ask for help and how freeing that actually was for you. Sharing your own struggle can create a feeling of connection and safety for them to confide in you.
- Remind them their health and happiness is everyone’s #1 priority
Reinforce that nothing else is as important as their health and happiness - not school, not a job, not even their loved ones. The fact is that when someone is not well and not taking good care of him or herself, she is not best equipped to take care of others, whether as a boss, a partner, a friend, or a mom. I took a year off of college for my mental health and it was right there waiting for me when I was ready to come back. It was scary as hell to feel like I would be left behind, but my own healing was far more important than graduating on time or how it might look on a future resume. If a friend is hesitant to admit to a problem because he or she is afraid of disappointing others, it could be critical for her to hear that her loved ones are so proud of her seeking out the help she needs.
Whether you are a parent concerned about your child, or a friend concerned about your peer, there is no “right” solution for all situations. The thoughts above reflect my own opinions about what I have found to be most and least helpful. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help if you are concerned about a loved one. It is not a betrayal of their trust. If someone was having trouble breathing, you would not wait for their permission to seek help. Often the person struggling desperately wants help but is afraid to ask for it. Let them know there is no shame in receiving support. No one who gets better does it alone.
Please share your own thoughts or experiences below (without using names of others unless they have given you permission). Creating a safe and supportive environment can begin with people simply sharing their own stories. And thank you for keeping this community supportive and filled with love.