Anorexia nervosa: Australian treatment guide for consumers and carers, 2005

What carers and partners can do to help

Page last updated: June 2005

Introduction
How the illness may affect the family
Consumer perspective of carer concerns
Working together for recovery
Continued care of chronic illness in the community

Introduction

Parental involvement with adolescents with anorexia is usually critical to the wellbeing of the young person with anorexia and the rest of the family.

Most people with anorexia look after themselves by keeping regular appointments with a psychiatrist or other mental health professional on an outpatient basis. Research shows that this improves quality of life, reduces suffering and improves overall chances of survival. But there is still a need for support from other people.

Most families want to help their relative recover. They can support a person by being a 'treatment ally' rather like when someone supports a person to stop smoking just by being encouraging.

They can support a person with anorexia nervosa in some of the following ways:
  • Discussing with the person about what support would be helpful
  • Providing emotional support and encouragement
  • Providing financial support if needed
  • Communicating with health professionals when appropriate
  • Maintaining a caring home environment
  • Supporting the person after discharge from a treatment centre
  • Encouraging the person to keep appointments
  • Upgrading knowledge of the illness
  • Contacting an eating disorder support association for information
  • Being mindful of the illness and its impacts on the person
  • Trying not to diminish the person's overall autonomy and independence.
A 'treatment ally' helps you to stick to treatment at times when you just want to give it up. Top of page

How the illness may affect the family

Families often experience grief, isolation, powerlessness and fear as they witness their loved one struggling with anorexia. They may find that they cannot understand the person's feelings and behaviour.

Sometimes the whole family can become consumed with the illness. They might appear only to worry about how stressful the next meal will be because of battles over what and how much the person with anorexia might eat. But in fact this is only the surface of their worries. They are actually distressed about all aspects of wellbeing of the person with anorexia nervosa.

At meal times in particular, siblings may feel ignored by parents and the normal social event of meal times is replaced by awkwardness.

Everyone in the family sometimes worries that the person with anorexia will die. Isolation is the critical thing to avoid for all concerned.

Often there is unnecessary guilt, particularly felt by mothers, worried they are responsible for the condition. Fathers may feel frustrated, to blame, or on the other hand, uninvolved as if unable to help.

Families need to identify their needs separately to the needs of the person with anorexia, and to discuss their needs with professionals or carer support organisations.

Friends can also find it hard to help a person with anorexia and this can result in more isolation for the person concerned. Partners of people with anorexia may not know how to help, or feel, or who to blame during periods when the condition worsens.

(Footnote: The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand (2002) provided information used in this section).

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Consumer perspective of carer concerns

People living through anorexia are not at fault for the condition and are distressed by the fact that the illness causes worry to others. Mostly they want carers to get professional help for their worries if this is needed, and for all the people in their lives to help create an atmosphere of hope where recovery is everyone's goal.

Working together for recovery

Despite the difficulties, family and friends need to keep talking about the problem. Even though this may not be welcomed by the person with anorexia, the problem rarely gets better by itself and it is not made worse by talking about it.

Families frequently find that services and health professionals do not listen to their views about their relative. Professionals may not always give them any information about their relative, particularly if the relative is an adult. Carers seem to agree that they need to know how the person is going with their illness and treatment.

Ideally, open communication between professionals, families and the person with anorexia is to be encouraged. If families can share information, skills and support with their relative and the professionals who look after them, the likelihood of recovery is generally thought to be better.

Living through anorexia nervosa can be an overwhelming, frightening and isolating experience. It is considered important for everyone to believe that the person can recover to lead a worthwhile life. Top of page

Continued care of chronic illness in the community

Some people with anorexia nervosa will have a chronic and long-term illness, which may not get better despite best efforts made. If this happens to the person you love with anorexia, it is important that all concerned maintain realistic goals, which aim to improve the quality of their life and yours. The goal is more to stabilise health as best as possible rather than to cure the anorexia.