Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services

Eating Disorder Service

Information for family and friends

When to get help

It can be hard to know when to ask your GP or school nurse for help – maybe you worry you’d be wasting their time, or it would mean admitting that there is a problem.  However, people are more likely to get better if they ask for help early so don’t hesitate to ask for help if you’re worried: eating disorders are serious illnesses and can be life-threatening.

It can be helpful to talk things over with a supportive friend, or to speak to the eating disorder charity b-eat. Their helplines offer support and information about eating disorders and difficulties with food, weight, and shape, but to access healthcare you need to see a professional. Eating disorders are hard to fight alone: as one account of recovery notes, “it is important to understand that an eating disorder cannot be conquered by you alone” (Arnold & Walsh, 2007, in ‘Next to Nothing’).

In the UK, general practitioners (GPs) are the first step to accessing specialist support. For children at school, you (or they) could also approach the school nurse for help.  It can be difficult to be honest about exactly what might be bothering you but the more information your GP has, the more easily they will be able to find you the right help.  You can also speak to a GP if you are worried about a loved one although, due to issues around confidentiality, there will be limits on what they can share with you.

If you notice any of the following, medical assessment is crucial:

  • Your child has lost weight/clothes that previously fitted are now too large – children and adolescents are still growing and so their weight should be increasing over time. If your child is losing weight, this is concerning and they need to have a GP check-up. Weight loss can be a sign of physical illness as well as an eating disorder so an early assessment is crucial.  
  • Your daughter’s periods have stopped (or all her friends have started their periods and she still hasn’t).  Being underweight affects hormones related to reproduction, and periods stopping or failing to start can be a sign of being severely underweight.
  • Your child is making him or herself vomit. Vomiting makes the body lose vital salts and can cause serious heart problems, like the heart going into a funny rhythm. It also causes tooth decay.
  • Your child is taking drugs to try to lose weight (e.g. laxatives, diuretics, diet pills) – again, these can unbalance levels of salt in the body and can cause serious heart problems.
  • Your child sometimes loses control of their eating – eating an abnormally large amount and feeling unable to stop eating.
  • Your child faints or has “funny turns”
  • Your child is over-exercising.
  • Your child is persistently unhappy.

If your child sees the family doctor he/she will talk to the young person, assess their physical health, and usually do a blood test.

Last updated: 2 April, 2019