Psychologist draws on experience to help clients with eating disorders

We are IU Health

May 02, 2019

What causes eating disorders? It’s a mixed bag. Clinical psychologist Valerie Weesner talks about meeting the unique needs of patients at IU Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders.

Colorful canvas artwork decorates the walls of Valerie Weesner’s office. The paintings are one of her hobbies and she also uses art to help communicate with the clients at IU Health Charis Center for Eating Disorders.

One of the paintings shows a silhouette of a girl with her hands outstretched to the sun. The quote reads: “One of the happiest moments in life is when you find the courage to let go of what you can’t change.” A sign on Weesner’s door describes peace: “It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of these and still be calm in your heart.”

Courage. Calmness. Compassion. Confidence.

The words are what Weesner, clinical director of IU Health Charis Center, tries to instill in her patients. The name Charis is a Greek word meaning “grace,” “inner beauty of honor” “courage” and “kindness of spirit.”

The Charis Center works from a medical model including a focus on physical, psychological and dietary health and well being. Providers from each discipline assess new patients and offer a treatment plan most appropriate for their needs. The center treats patients with anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge-eating disorder, other specified feeding and eating disorders, and avoidant restrictive food intake disorder. Levels of care include outpatient, individual, family and group therapies, an intensive outpatient program and a partial hospitalization program.

The treatment team’s interdisciplinary model includes medical staff, nursing, psychologists, social workers and mental health counselors, as well as experiential treatment groups such as art therapy, trauma therapy, narrative and body movement therapies and yoga.

“There are many aspects of patient care and at the heart is to focus on the strength of character of each person who walks through the doors of Charis Center,” said Weesner. The Charis Center is also committed to prevention and early intervention, providing educational services to medical facilities, schools and other therapeutic practices. Staff members participate in the Eating Disorder Task Force of Indiana (EDTFI).

“The most surprising thing I’ve learned in working here is that initially I thought eating disorders developed out of a trauma but it’s not always the case. Sometimes it starts because you’re losing weight and get on a track and keep going,” said Weesner. More than half the patients who come to Charis Center are adolescents or young adults. With the increased popularity of weight loss and fitness tracking apps many patients find their way to the center because they focused on body size more than nutrition.

“It’s a great tool for some people but because it doesn’t tell them what calorie range to hit based on their physiological needs, they significantly restrict their diets. Add to that the message from society – people pay them compliments – and they keep losing. Other patients with poor body image go from losing to binging and by the time we see them they have bulimia,” said Weesner who is married to Tom Weesner. Together they have two daughters ages 21 and 22.

Treatment typically includes individual therapy; eating disorders education; yoga, art and music therapy; consultation with schools, educators, healthcare providers; support groups; and family counseling.

“In family therapy we work to educate the parents and family members on ways to work with their loved one and fight the eating disorder,” said Weesner. There’s a sketch she refers to that shows the family in battle with the eating disorder – pulling them away from education.

It is one of many sketches Weesner has created in a 20-page booklet of black and white drawings to help families cope. The booklet was edited by Dr. Mary Rouse medical director of Charis Center and includes “Dr. Rouse’s Rules” – “Structure, Follow Meal Plan and Be Vigilant.”

According to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Eating Disorders at least 30 million people in the United States of all ages and genders suffer some type of eating disorder.

“There is no quick fix to eating disorders and every patient is different,” said Weesner, who has been with Charis Center for 10 years. “I was hired at the Charis Center due to my experience with family therapy; since then family therapy has become our first line treatment in working with kids and adolescents with eating disorders, based on the Maudsley Method, or family-based treatment approach.”

The hallways inside Charis Center lead to various offices representing a band of practitioners who are part of the patient care team. There is an art room, an activity room, and a room for support groups and new skills classes for adults and adolescents. There’s also a kitchen – stocked with fresh produce and healthy snacks. Patients are encouraged to make their own meals and choose their own foods.

A prominent piece of artwork along a hallway brings a smile to Weesner’s face. It’s a colorful tree painted on a wall. Plants and animals represent staff members who nurtured patients to health. And there’s something else: Colorful handprints representing patients who have taken part in Charis Center programs – the first step to their healing.

The name of the painting? “The recovery tree.”

-- By T.J. Banes, Journalist, IU Health.
Reach Banes via email tfender1@iuhealth.org.

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Eating Disorders

These conditions, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge eating, involve unhealthy relationships with food, weight and body image.