What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy can be a useful treatment tool.

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What Is Art Therapy?

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.

People have been relying on the arts for communication, self-expression, and healing for thousands of years. But art therapy didn't start to become a formal program until the 1940s.

Doctors noted that individuals living with 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.

Types of Creative Therapies

Art therapy is not the only type of creative art used in the treatment of mental illness. Other types of creative therapies include:

Techniques

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.

The creation or appreciation of art is used to help people explore emotions, develop self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem, and work on social skills.

Techniques used in art therapy can include:

  • Collage
  • Coloring
  • Doodling and scribbling
  • Drawing
  • Finger painting
  • Painting
  • Photography
  • Sculpting
  • Working with clay

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.

What Art Therapy Can Help With

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 (CBT).

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
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Psychosocial issues
  • Stress
  • Substance use disorder

Benefits of Art Therapy

According to a 2016 study published in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, less than an hour of creative activity can reduce your stress and have a positive effect on your mental health, regardless of artistic experience or talent.

An art therapist may use a variety of art methods, including drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage with clients ranging from young children to older adults.

Clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues can benefit from expressing themselves creatively.

Some situations in which art therapy might be utilized include:

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

Effectiveness

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. 

  • In studies of adults who experienced trauma, art therapy was found to significantly reduce trauma symptoms and decrease levels of depression.
  • One review of the effectiveness of art therapy found that this technique helped patients undergoing medical treatment for cancer improve their quality of life and alleviated a variety of psychological symptoms.
  • One study found that art therapy reduced depression and increased self-esteem in older adults living in nursing homes.

Things to Consider

If you or someone you love is thinking about art therapy, there are some common misconceptions and facts you should know.

You Don't Have to Be Artistic

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.

It's Not the Same as an Art Class

People often wonder how an art therapy session differs from an 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.

Art Therapy Can Take Place in a Variety of Settings

Inpatient offices, private mental health offices, schools, and community organizations are all possible settings for art therapy services. Additionally, art therapy may be available in other settings such as:

  • 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

If specialized media or equipment is required, however, finding a suitable setting may become challenging.

Art Therapy Is Not for Everyone

Art therapy isn’t for everyone. While high levels of creativity or artistic ability aren't necessary for art therapy to be successful, many adults who believe they are not creative or artistic might be resistant or skeptical of the process.

In addition, art therapy has not been found effective for all types of mental health conditions. For example, one meta-analysis found that art therapy is not effective in reducing positive or negative symptoms of schizophrenia.

How to Get Started

If you think you or someone you love would benefit from art therapy, consider the following steps:

  • Seek out a trained professional. Qualified art therapists will hold at least a master’s degree in psychotherapy with an additional art therapy credential. To find a qualified art therapist, consider searching the Art Therapy Credentials Board website.
  • Call your health insurance. While art therapy may not be covered by your health insurance, there may be certain medical waivers to help fund part of the sessions. Your insurance may also be more likely to cover the sessions if your therapist is a certified psychologist or psychiatrist who offers creative therapies.
  • Ask about their specialty. Not all art therapists specialize in all mental health conditions. Many specialize in working with people who have experienced trauma or individuals with substance use disorders, for example.
  • Know what to expect. During the first few sessions, your art therapist will likely ask you about your health background as well as your current concerns and goals. They may also suggest a few themes to begin exploring via drawing, painting, sculpting, or another medium.
  • Be prepared to answer questions about your art-making process. As the sessions progress, you'll likely be expected to answer questions about your art and how it makes you feel. For example: What were you thinking while doing the art? Did you notice a change of mood from when you started to when you finished? Did the artwork stir any memories?

Becoming 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 practice. 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 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.

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