Story by: Kevin Wheatley on March 27, 2023
Expressive art therapy can help patients with eating disorders make sense of their condition, as well as give providers a glimpse into where their patients are along their paths to recovery.
If you think your child needs help, talk to a member of the Norton Children’s team about pediatric mental health services.
Sculpting “creatures” can help patients separate themselves from the harm caused by their eating disorders, and it can help unburden them of any guilt, according to Elizabeth Sanders Martin, an expressive art therapist and child life specialist at Norton Children’s Hospital.
“Therapies like these are helpful in understanding where our patients are in their disorder and in developing treatment options,” she said.
Most of the “creatures” look menacing at first glance, perhaps reflecting the turmoil patients feel with a condition that they know harms them, but they struggle to control.
“The Void” is a white, bald figure restrained by a crimson straitjacket with a mouth of pointed fangs and blank, pupilless eyes looking back at the observer. The artist, who has an eating disorder diagnosis, describes the creature’s stare as reminiscent of “death, empty like a gaping hole,” while the straitjacket represents a feeling of entrapment.
Another artist created “Archie,” who has a long tongue sticking out that symbolizes her feeling of nausea and gagging. Its skinny legs depict weight loss, while its droopy eyes represent fatigue felt by the patients. Its two yellowed fangs depict a feeling that self-care and basic hygiene are unimportant against a backdrop of fatigue and depression.
These “creatures” are just some of the sculptures made during recent expressive art therapy sessions at Norton Children’s Hospital and displayed in a recent exhibit at the Belita and Norman Noltemeyer Excellence in Education Center at Norton Children’s Hospital.
Norton Children’s Hospital has seen more kids and teens hospitalized for eating disorders in recent years.
Norton Children’s Hospital treated 117 pediatric patients for eating disorders in 2022, the latest in a trend of annual increases. In 2017, Norton Children’s Hospital treated 33 pediatric patients for eating disorders.
“I think social media and the isolation experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic have been factors in the recent increase we’ve seen in children and adolescents developing eating disorders,” said Andrea L. Krause, M.D., hospitalist with Norton Children’s Inpatient Care, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine, and leader of Norton Children’s Hospital’s acute medical stabilization program for eating disorders. “Social media can cause kids to compare themselves to unrealistic versions of others and set unhealthy expectations on how they should look.”
Most patients treated for eating disorders by Norton Children’s since 2017 have been teens ages 13 to 17, and 84% have been female.
Norton Children’s is not the only pediatric hospital seeing more children and adolescents seeking care recently. A study published by JAMA Pediatrics in November 2022 found 14 public hospitals across the U.S. experienced significant increases in inpatient admissions and outpatient assessments for eating disorders after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Unfortunately, this is not a trend unique to Kentucky,” said Kayla N. LaRosa, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist with Norton Children’s Behavioral & Mental Health, affiliated with the UofL School of Medicine. “Eating disorders are affecting kids and teenagers throughout the U.S. Early intervention is key, so speak with your pediatrician if you think your child has an eating disorder. Connecting kids who experience eating disorders with the care they need is critical in their recovery.”