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 personality. In psychology, the use of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health is known as art therapy.
Art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as "a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight."
When Did Art Therapy Originate?
While people have been using the arts as a way to express, communicate and heal for thousands of years, art therapy only began to formalize during the middle of the 20th-century. 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.
When Is Art Therapy Used?
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:
- Children with learning disabilities
- Adults experiencing severe stress
- Children suffering from behavioral or social problems at school or at home
- People experiencing mental health problems
- Individuals suffering from a brain injury
- Children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event
How Does Art Therapy Work?
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. Hospitals, private mental health offices, schools and community organizations are all possible settings where art therapy services may be available.
You might also wonder how an art therapy session differs from the average art class. "In most art therapy sessions, the focus is on your inner experience—your feelings, perceptions, and imagination. While art therapy may involve learning skills or art techniques, the emphasis is generally first on developing and expressing images that come from inside the person, rather than those he or she sees in the outside world," explains Cathy Maldiochi in The Art Therapy Sourcebook . "And while some traditional art classes may ask you to paint or draw from your imagination, in art therapy, your inner world of images, feelings, thoughts, and ideas are always of primary importance to the experience."
How to Become an Art Therapist
Are you interested in a career in art therapy? While laws vary from state to state, in most cases you may need to first become a licensed clinical psychologist, professional counselor or social worker in order to offer psychotherapy services. Start by checking with your state to learn more about the education, training and professional credentials you will need to practice art therapy.
In the United States, the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. (ATCB) offers credentialing programs 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:
- A master's degree in art therapy, or
- A master's degree in counseling or a related field with additional coursework in art therapy
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.