It can take an extensive team to help someone with an eating disorder recover. The members of this team typically include family, friends, doctors and therapists. There are also groups of volunteers that can help make a patient’s transition to recovery easier. Meal supervisors assist nurses and doctors at in-patient facilities to ensure that people being treated for eating disorders are eating properly.

My friend Kristen has been a meal supervisor at a local mental health clinic for a year now, and she sat down with me to talk about the challenges and benefits the role offers her.

What do you do as a meal supervisor?

Kristen: At my clinic, volunteers come in when the nurses take a break and sit with the patients in the eating disorder clinic during meal time to ensure that meals are being eaten, and that eating disorder behaviours are not going on while eating.

These behaviours include trying to hide food, having negative body talk, talking about fat, or talking about food as disgusting.

Then there’s a post-meal supervision for an hour or so after meals the patients are supervised to ensure that they do actually keep all their nutrients and don’t go and purge the food that they just consumed.

Why did you want to become a meal supervisor?

Kristen: I found out about the clinic through a local volunteer search engine. I searched key words I was interested in such as mental health, because in the future, I would like to become an eating disorder psychologist. I thought this would be a good experience to be able to work with people in a vulnerable population and get to see how an in-patient facility functions.

What’s the best part about being a meal supervisor?

Kristen: One thing I do like about it is that it’s a fairly flexible position. You can choose to supervise breakfast, lunch, or dinner so it’s fairly easy to find a time that works well for me while being in school.

My favourite part of volunteering there is getting to have that interaction with the patients and helping them by doing something that is concrete versus something that is more abstract and obscure. It is difficult to find a job or volunteer opportunities to work with people who are diagnosed with some sort of psychopathology because of the high degree of confidentiality and credentials to needed work in those environments.

Additionally, recently, they have been having more of the staff eating there during the meals and it’s been great to see how the staff members support the patients in the clinic.

What’s the most challenging aspect of your role?

Kristen: I think the most challenging aspect is watching the different patients as they’re trying to eat their meals and seeing them struggle with it emotionally and feeling the discomfort while they’re eating. It’s a reality for many of them, and it’s to be expected when you’re volunteering in an eating disorder clinic.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how involved you should be when you see that they are uncomfortable. It’s difficult to know if they want to be left alone to eat their meal in peace without extra attention being drawn to them, but you also don’t want them to feel alone and ignored.

Correcting the behaviours is also difficult because it can sometimes feel a little nit-picky. It can be awkward to tell someone who is older than you exactly how to sit or what they can talk about while they eat.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to volunteer in an eating disorder clinic?

If you are interested in volunteering as a meal supervisor, reach out to local hospitals and mental health clinics in your area. One in four people will be affected by mental illness in their lifetime. You could play an important role in supporting someone’s journey to recovery while learning more about what it takes to support someone living with an eating disorder.