Art therapy, as the name suggests, involves creating art as a therapeutic tool to help facilitate emotional growth, and promote both mental and physical healing and recovery. Sometimes referred to as art psychotherapy, it is often used in combination with other forms of medical or mental health treatment. Art therapy can be beneficial for a wide variety of individuals, including patients dealing with mental health issues, such as schizophrenia or anorexia nervosa, as well as those battling serious medical issues, like cancer or chronic illness. It can also help those recovering from trauma or addiction, working through grief, or coping with a disability.
While art therapy often involves drawing or painting, other types of artistic expression – such as sculpting, clay work, or creating a collage, for example – may also be used. Creating art gives individuals the opportunity to express themselves more freely, gain insight and self-awareness, and work through difficult emotions in a manner that’s quite different from – and perhaps less intimidating than – traditional counseling or talk therapy.
In some instances, art therapy may involve viewing – rather than creating – works of art, such as photographs or drawings – and then discussing them with the therapist. The therapist will ask the patient what he or she sees in the work of art, and / or what emotions or memories it triggers.
Art therapy sessions may be conducted individually, with couples or families, or in a group setting. This particular form of therapy works with individuals of all ages – from young children to elderly adults. It can be utilized effectively in a variety of settings, including inpatient psychiatric units and other medical venues, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, day treatment programs, support groups, prisons, and residential treatment facilities for drug and alcohol rehab, eating disorders, and other mental health conditions.
It’s important to stress that art therapy doesn’t require any artistic talent or ability whatsoever. It’s not about painting a masterpiece or showing off one’s skills – or lack thereof. An experienced art therapist can work with non-descript blobs of color or fiercely scribbled lines just as easily as a sophisticated sketch or watercolor painting.
One of the prominent pioneers in art therapy was Hanna Kwiatkowska, an accomplished, multi-lingual sculptor originally from Poland. Educated in various European schools, Kwiatkowska ultimately made her home in the U.S. During her work at the National Institutes of Mental Health, she found that drawing was a powerful therapeutic tool in her therapy sessions with families.
While at the NIMH, Kwiatkowska met and offered to train Harriet Wadeson, a psychology graduate from Cornell University who had started working there in the early 1960s. Wadeson went on to become a major player in the field of art therapy. Working originally with adolescents, she also used art therapy to treat patients who were suicidal, manic, and psychotic. Wadeson later established a graduate program in art therapy. She has written numerous books and multiple professional journal articles on the topic.
Other pioneers and significant early contributors in the field of art therapy include Edith Kramer, Florence Cane, and Margaret Naumburg.
How Art Therapy Works
Art therapists help individuals express themselves through the creation of art. For example, a female patient struggling with an eating disorder can use drawings to convey how she really sees herself. She can also use them to express how she feels about her family or her place in the world. A young boy who’s experienced a traumatic event may not be able to talk about it, but he can paint or draw pictures to show what he experienced as well as express painful emotions associated with the trauma. The art therapist can use the drawings for diagnostic purposes as well as discussion, as art often reveals subconscious conflicts and concerns with which a patient is struggling. Progress – as well as setbacks – will show up in the patient’s art work as well.
Art therapy helps patients, such as young children, express themselves without having to use words. Since drawing, painting, and other forms of artistic creation are often both enjoyable and relaxing, art therapy provides a less threatening, less intrusive, and more comfortable way to reveal, address, and work through difficult issues and painful emotions than talking about them directly.
If the therapist is having a patient view and discuss a work of art, the information will give the therapist valuable insight. Much like a Rorschach (“ink blot”) test, this approach will help the therapist better understand the patient’s perspective, thought processes, and emotions.
Regardless of the approach – viewing versus creating art – an art therapist will use it to guide patients in a way that helps them reach their individual therapy goals. Examples of therapy goals include things such as working through grief, recovering from trauma, increasing self-esteem, overcoming depression, or achieving a healthy body image.
Benefits of Art Therapy
There are many potential benefits to art therapy, including but not limited to the following:
- Stress reduction
- Increased sense of self-awareness
- Greater sense of control
- Increased sense of independence
- Improvements in communication
- Healthier, more positive body image
- Improvements in social skills
- Safe expression of difficult emotions
- Increased self-esteem
- Increased problem-solving skills
- Reduced anxiety
- Improved mood
- Improved coping skills
- Healing from trauma
- A greater sense of connection (group art therapy)
- Enhance sense of personal empowerment
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of art therapy is that it allows individuals to express things that they simply can’t put into words. The saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words” is particularly apt with regards to art therapy. Sometimes a drawing or painting is much more powerful and revealing than fifty minutes of dialogue.
Another salient benefit of art therapy is that many individuals feel much more comfortable in art therapy than traditional psychotherapy. Sitting across from and talking face-to-face with a therapist can feel threatening and difficult for some people. Creating art, on the other hand, may help them lower their guard, which helps facilitate the therapy process.
Disorders, Issues, and Conditions that can benefit from Art Therapy
Art therapy has been used to benefit a wide range of mental health symptoms and disorders, challenging life issues, and physical health conditions as well. These include the following:
- Bipolar disorder
- Panic disorder
- Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders
- Eating disorders (e.g. anorexia, bulimia)
- Drug or alcohol abuse and addiction
- Trauma (e.g. survivors of sexual or physical abuse, natural disasters)
- PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder)
- Compulsive gambling
- Sex addiction
- Autism spectrum disorders
- Traumatic brain injury
- Domestic violence
- Chronic or terminal health issues
- Coping with disability
- Family conflict
- Grief and loss
- Suicidal thoughts
- Individuals with learning problems
What to Expect
Typically, in art therapy, you’ll be creating some form of art and then talking about the process as well as what you created. As mentioned above, the art therapist may have you paint or draw a picture, or create something from clay or other materials. You may be part of a group or working one-on-one with the therapist. If you’re in family or couple’s therapy, then other family members or your significant other will likely be part of the session.
The therapist may ask you to create whatever comes to mind or give you a more specific task, such as to draw a self-portrait or to convey how you feel with colors or shapes. You may be asked to draw your family, yourself as a child, or the house you grew up in. You may be asked to paint a picture or create a collage of your hopes and dreams, or draw something that makes you feel happy or calm. If you’re working through grief, you may be asked to draw a picture of someone you’ve lost.
You may be asked to talk about the process; for example, how it felt or if it triggered any memories. The therapist will also have you talk about what you’ve created, including, for example, how or why you chose certain colors or shapes. He or she may ask you about certain aspects of your art that stood out. For example, if your family portrait shows you standing apart from everyone else, then that would be an important thing to discuss as it conveys a particular dynamic you feel within your family. Perhaps you were adopted or felt like you never really fit in.
A skilled art therapist will never shame, judge, or ridicule you for anything you create during art therapy. Like other types of therapy, it’s a process of self-discovery and healing – and that requires an environment in which you feel safe and supported.
Most art therapists have a graduate degree in art therapy, although some may have a degree in a related field (e.g. clinical psychology or marriage and family therapy) with additional training and proper certification in art therapy.
Art therapy can be a very worthwhile and enjoyable form of treatment. If you’re interested in art therapy for yourself or someone you know, you can find a list of qualified providers through the American Art Therapy Association. The AATA has over 5,000 members located throughout the U.S. Their official website is www.ArtTherapy.org.