Providing Hope, Just One Call Away

By: Kristen Portland, Executive Director

I was terrified the first time I went to answer the ANAD Eating Disorder Helpline. It was not long after I’d started, and I did all the things I do to get ready for something that scares me: I read all the books I could find, had detailed discussions with anyone who would listen, procrastinated, read some supplementary articles, set a deadline, did some research, then pushed my deadline back by a week. I was two weeks into the job, head spinning from everything I was learning, and the ANAD helpline was waiting for me to take responsibility for it.

The first eating disorder helpline

Our eating disorder helpline was not the result of ANAD’s founders sitting down to make a strategic decision. It came about because people asked Vivian for her number. Our founder, in the same house where she pioneered support groups for folks with eating disorders, gave her home number to those group members. They turned around and shared with anyone they knew who needed help, and soon Vivian’s living room offered support at all hours of the day and night. It’s hard to imagine a hotline today being answered by a nurse sitting in her living room in a robe at 3am, but that was the start of ANAD’s helpline

Eventually, the need for groups and support outgrew Vivian’s house, so the city of Highland Park in Illinois donated office space. She transferred her former home number to the office, and turned to her community for help answering the calls. It was there that volunteers got involved more formally. They didn’t go through a full training or onboarding process, they just showed up to help, brought what they knew, listened to the people who had started answering in Vivian’s living room, and did their best.

That human approach has always defined ANAD. We’re people. The professionals in our community set us up for success, but it’s the experiences of the people answering phones, leading groups and acting as mentors that bring the empathy and connection that define us.

Helpline expansion during unprecedented times

At the time when I joined, support groups were ANAD’s standout service, and the helpline was my desk phone. I started my days by returning voicemails and working to get out any referrals, and paused my work supporting volunteers to answer when it rang. It was manageable, but over time, calls came in frequently enough that I needed help. We brought on an intern, who I trained using all the information I’d wished I had when I started. Later on, after joining the staff, she turned around and made that training even better before we decided once again to lean on volunteer support for the eating disorders helpline, too.

It was while we were formalizing that new volunteer training that COVID hit. I couldn’t bring the desk phone from the ANAD office to my home, so we set up forwarding to a google voice number. The staff traded that number around between our cell phones, texting one another to make sure that it was handed off successfully. 

That was a stopgap. Our google voice number could not keep up with the demand that the pandemic unveiled. Eventually, ANAD moved the helpline to a formal hotline service that allowed us to truly share the line remotely for the first time. 

While exploring the technology needs of the hotline, we were also expanding our training procedures. With the incredible professional community around us, we created online training modules with a virtual roleplay component. We also made sure that our volunteers would be connected to each other, supported by the staff, and had the tools to take care of themselves along with the callers.

Meeting the needs of the community

We also moved referrals to a separate process from the helpline. Initially, I did all the research, sent the emails, and followed up for anyone looking for treatment. In Vivian’s day, treatment was so limited that she and the volunteers around her knew of all 10-12 options available offhand. Today, even though we so badly need more, there are enough therapists, treatment centers and programs that it takes a bit more work to connect folks. While it may take a little longer to do the research, we now have a community of folks working to get those referrals. 

Again, with the increased demand came a need for more training, and that piece is still ongoing. We have incredible folks who are connected to the eating disorder community in several ways who work to research and send custom referrals to our callers. 

If you need a dietitian who understands binge eating disorder and is HAES (health at every size) informed? We’ll get their email. 

If you want a treatment center that will help you recover from atypical anorexia and never misgender you? We’ll send a list. 

Just as we support anyone struggling with an eating disorder, ANAD has leaned on our wider community for support. F.E.A.S.T. are an amazing group of people who we mention to every parent who rings our line. And when we’re too backed up to get referrals out quickly, we’re straightforward, and send people to the Alliance, where they can get a clinician to offer a referral faster than we’re able to (for now!). 

Future growth of the eating disorders helpline

Our helpline has grown exponentially over the years, but we have more growing to do. The new second line helps, but we’d love to add a third, and to train enough people to answer. Our training program is amazing, and we’d love to offer more ongoing options. Our referrals team is passionate and dedicated, and they need more support to reduce wait times. We’ll keep growing, learning, and holding space for the people who need to talk, need connections to professionals, or just need someone to tell them they’re not alone. 

I still get nervous when I answer the eating disorder helpline, I don’t know if that will ever stop for me, but I know that answering matters. I know that even if all I can do is agree with someone that what’s happening to them is unfair, if all I can do is tell someone recovery is possible (even if they don’t yet believe it), that’s still important. It’s an invitation to learn more, to get the number of a therapist, join a group, talk to a loved one. Even if now isn’t the moment, the invitation stands. Because community matters. Whether you find it in a living room, in a virtual support group, with a mentor, or over the phone, ANAD will hold space to make sure people know they’re not alone, that help is out there, and that there is always hope. 

The ANAD Eating Disorder Helpline is available Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM CT at 1-888-375-7767.

Kristen Portland

(she/her)