29 Jun 2022

ASK THE DOC: Help is out there for people dealing with eating disorders

Dr Eddie gives his expert advice

ASK THE DOC: Help is out there for people dealing with eating disorders

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It’s a myt h that eating disorders only affect young people (and girls).

While the average age of onset is 13 to 24 years, a person can develop an eating disorder at any age.

Often mistaken as ‘diets gone wrong’, eating disorders are, in fact, not really about food or weight.

An eating disorder is an extremely complex and destructive mental illness that affects every aspect of how a person functions — how they behave (how they feed themselves), how they think, their physical well being, and at its core, how the person feels.

Although to the outside world the focus seems to be on food and weight, for the person, food and weight become the way they express and manage underlying distress and turmoil.

Simply put, an eating disorder is a destructive coping mechanism, something a person uses to help them to manage day to day.

That’s why it is so hard for a person to change.

Everybody has coping mechanisms and most people have ones that aren’t good for them, like excess alcohol, smoking, and having too much coffee.

If someone tells us to stop, naturally we get defensive. It’s no different for someone with an eating disorder. Resistance to change is normal.

When a person develops an eating disorder the whole household and family are affected — no matter what age the person is.

People often describe the eating disorder invading their house, taking it over, and ‘ruling the roost’ so to speak. Parents in particular really struggle to know what to do and often describe themselves as ‘walking on eggshells’.

Feeding their child is something they have done since birth and suddenly they lose confidence in their ability to do this and their child (no matter what age they are) no longer thinks logically about how to nourish themselves.

Their child is now being controlled by this destructive disorder.

Families, and especially parents need support to be able to cope with this situation.

They can quickly move from being a parent to being a carer and find themselves dealing with a person who is ill and has developed a disorder that is complex, life threatening and irrational. Parents need knowledge, practical information, skills and support to build resilience to support their loved one to recovery.

It is absolutely possible to recover from an eating disorder and parents are often a vital part of that process. Supporting families has been at the heart of Bodywhys, The Eating Disorders Association of Ireland’s work since its establishment in 1995.

They have listened to what families need and have developed a family support programme — the PiLaR Programme to provide families with what they need. Based on the idea of Peer Led Resilience and running for one evening a week for four weeks, families come together to learn about eating disorders, about the mindset of a person with an eating disorder, communication skills, how to avoid arguments and power struggles, how to manage mealtimes, treatment and relapse, all the while allowing time and space for individual questions and support.

The programme is free to attend and anyone supporting a person with an eating disorder can attend.

To date over 700 people have attended the PiLaR programme — mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, grandmothers, and partners. Every supporter is welcome.

Starting mid-September Bodywhys is running three programmes before Christmas, in Donegal, Dublin and Waterford.

Places are free but booking is essential ( For venues and dates please see

This is a course that if at all possible, you should try to attend if you are caring or living with someone with an eating disorder. It is a huge help to understand and accept that the person has an eating disorder.

A course like this should be compulsory when a referral is made to CAMHS, this course should be offered during the waiting time. It helps empower parents, inform them, and help them.

For all those who are faced with the life changing situation of caring for someone with an eating disorder, this is the perfect place to start. You will leave with a different perspective and feel more equipped to care for someone and yourself.

Contact information:; Helpline: 01-2107906; Email

Dr Eddie Murphy runs a psychological and counselling service in Portarlington, Co Laois. If you are organising a speaker or training for school, community, voluntary, sporting or work groups, call Dr Eddie on 087 1302899 or go to dr.eddie.murphy.psychologist

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