How Art Therapy Is Used to Help People Heal

Art therapy can be a useful treatment tool.

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The use of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health is known as art therapy. Art therapy is a technique rooted in the idea that creative expression can foster healing and mental well-being. Art, either creating it or viewing others' art, is used to help people explore emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem, and work on social skills.

It may surprise you to learn that art can be an effective tool in mental health treatment. What could art possibly have to do with psychotherapy? As an expressive medium, art can be used to help clients communicate, overcome stress, and explore different aspects of their own personalities.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. The American Art Therapy Association characterizes art therapy as an approach to mental health that utilizes the process of creating art to improve mental, physical, and emotional wellness.

The goal of art therapy is to utilize the creative process to help people explore self-expression and, in doing so, find new ways to gain personal insight and develop new coping skills.

Techniques used in art therapy can include drawing, painting, coloring, sculpting, or collage. As clients create art, they may analyze what they have made and how it makes them feel. Through exploring their art, people can look for themes and conflicts that may be affecting their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

People do not need to have artistic ability or special talent to participate in art therapy, and people of all ages including children, teens, and adults can benefit from it. Some research suggests that just the presence of art can play a part in boosting mental health.

A 2017 study found that art displayed in hospital settings contributed to an environment where patients felt safe. It also played a role in improving socialization and maintaining an identity outside of the hospital. 

History

People have been relying on the arts to communicate, express themselves, and heal for thousands of years. But art therapy didn't start to become a formal program until the 1940s.

Doctors noted that individuals suffering from mental illness often expressed themselves in drawings and other artworks, which led many to explore the use of art as a healing strategy. Since then, art has become an important part of the therapeutic field and is used in some assessment and treatment techniques.

Uses

Art therapy can be used to treat a wide range of mental disorders and psychological distress. In many cases, it might be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques such as group therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Some situations in which art therapy might be utilized include:

  • Adults experiencing severe stress
  • Children suffering from behavioral or social problems at school or at home
  • Children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event
  • Children with learning disabilities
  • Individuals suffering from a brain injury
  • People experiencing mental health problems

Some conditions that art therapy may be used to treat include:

  • Aging-related issues
  • Anxiety
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional difficulties
  • Family or relationship problems
  • Medical conditions
  • Psychological symptoms associated with other medical issues
  • PTSD
  • Psychosocial issues
  • Stress
  • Substance use

One review of the effectiveness of art therapy found that this technique helped cancer patients undergoing medical treatment improve their quality of life and alleviated a variety of psychological symptoms.

Limitations

While research suggests that art therapy may be beneficial, some of the findings on its effectiveness are mixed. Studies are often small and inconclusive, so further research is needed to explore how and when art therapy may be most beneficial. 

How It Works

An art therapist may use a variety of art methods including drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage with clients ranging from young children to the elderly. Clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues can benefit from expressing themselves creatively.

Inpatient offices, private mental health offices, schools, and community organizations are all possible settings where art therapy services may be available. Some specific setting where art therapy might take place include:

  • Art studios
  • Colleges and universities
  • Community centers
  • Correctional facilities
  • Elementary schools and high schools
  • Group homes
  • Homeless shelters
  • Hospitals
  • Private therapy offices
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Senior centers
  • Wellness center
  • Women's shelters

People often wonder how an art therapy session differs from the average art class. Where an art class is focused on teaching technique or creating a specific finished product, art therapy is more about letting clients focus on their inner experience.

In creating art, people are able to focus on their own perceptions, imagination, and feelings. Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.

How to Become an Art Therapist

If you are interested in becoming an art therapist, start by checking with your state to learn more about the education, training, and professional credentials you will need to practiceI. In most cases you may need to first become a licensed clinical psychologist, professional counselor, or social worker in order to offer psychotherapy services.

In the United States, the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. (ATCB) offers credentialing programs that allow art therapists to become registered, board-certified, or licensed art therapists, depending upon the state in which they live and work.

According to the American Art Therapy Association, the minimum requirements:

Additional post-graduate supervised experience is also required. You can learn more about the training and educational requirements to become an art therapist on the AATA website.

Art therapists fall under the umbrella term of recreational therapists, which also includes mental health professionals who utilize performance, sports, and other recreational activities to facilitate mental wellness. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average yearly salary for recreational therapists was $50,640 in 2018.

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