Asking Patients to Draw Their Illness can be Surprisingly Revealing

Posted on January 21, 2019

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Studies has shown that when people who have experienced a heart attack were asked to draw their heart on repeated occasions a correlation was found such as the larger they drew their heart, the higher their levels of anxiety were and a greater likelihood of a slower return to work. This provides a useful insight into the benefits of using drawings to understand how patients’ experiences of their illness. With a better understanding it could also help inform clinical interventions.

This method has been used since the 1970s and is steadily growing in popularity. The numerous features of the drawings including the process are all useful information that could help increase the general understanding of each individual patient’s experience as no experiences are the same. These include noticing if there is a theme in their drawings, if there are any distortions or omissions, their style of drawing, and their facial expressions during the process.

Some examples that has been found are with brain injury survivors where the more damage that was drawn on their brain, the longer their recovery time were, and they also experience a worse quality of life. Similarly, with patients of kidney transplant, the larger their kidney was drawn, they higher the tendency of greater anxiety and sense of loss of control. In children too, between healthy and sickly individuals, children who were sick featured fewer human figures. Even for mental health conditions, drawings have been found to be informative as well such as those with depression exhibiting lesser colour and more emptiness in their drawing.

Though this research is interesting and could strongly benefit children who often are unable to express themselves in words, it still lacks methodological consistency. Different studies provide different drawing instructions to their participants which could account for variation in results, affecting the establishment of the reliability and validity of drawing as an assessment tool. With more research conducted using more explicit and consistent drawing instructions, these researchers believe that drawings can offer additional insights that traditional health psychology questionnaires might have missed. This would enable more personalized health psychology interventions catering more towards each patient’s individual needs to better understand and cope with their illness and treatment.

Category(s):Health / Illness / Medical Issues, Health Psychology

Source material from The British Psychological Society Research Digest