How Effective is Art Therapy?

art therapy

Drawing, painting, collage, coloring, and sculpting are more than just creative techniques — they are vehicles of self-expression and understanding. In the world of art therapy, a licensed and credentialed art therapist can guide an individual to uncover messages and symbols in various art forms, digging deep into a person’s innermost feelings by examining the psychological meaning behind their creations. This form of expression is a proven treatment method for underlying issues and can help clients uncover different aspects of their own personalities.

How Art Therapy Works

Founded on the belief that self-expression through art and creativity has a healing effect on children and adults, art therapy combines psychotherapy and some form of visual art. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists are trained to understand how color, texture, and various media can help enable the therapeutic process by revealing a person’s thoughts, feelings, and overall disposition. In a typical art therapy session, a person can expect to be exposed to drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage — or a combination of media.

An art therapist’s goal is to engage a person’s mind and body beyond verbal articulation alone. Through the act of creation, a person can explore kinesthetic, sensory, perceptual, and symbolic opportunities to express themselves, helping give voice to an experience — empowering an individual to transform their perception of whatever challenges they’re struggling with. In practice, art therapy can be administered in combination with talk therapy or as a stand-alone form of therapy.

Who Benefits From Art Therapy?

A person does not need artistic ability or a special creative talent to engage in, and benefit from, art therapy. In fact, people of all ages — children, teenagers, and adults — can take advantage of this treatment method. Research finds that both the presence of art, and art therapy, can have a positive impact on improving a person’s mental health. In fact, one study examined 27 reports on this subject to determine the effectiveness of art therapy, finding that the following clinical populations experience significant positive impact:

  • Cancer patients
  • Individuals coping with trauma
  • Mental health clients
  • Prison inmates
  • Elderly populations
  • Those who face daily challenges

Overall, clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological challenges find positive psychological benefits in expressing themselves through art therapy.

Common Misconceptions About Art Therapy

“Art therapy” is sometimes misunderstood simply due to a lack of understanding about the profession. You can see this anywhere — from advertisements for art for therapeutic purposes to professional art therapy training that provides participants with a certificate upon completion. In these instances, and in plenty of others, the use of the term “art therapy” is applied incorrectly, as it suggests that art therapy is not a profession that requires proper credentials.

Most often, however, there is a misconception that any art class offers the same benefits as art therapy. An art class is focused on teaching techniques of craft and creating the desired finished artistic product, while art therapy is focused on a person’s intrinsic experience. One example that is commonly misrepresented is adult coloring books and various other coloring activities. While coloring can be a fun, stress-relieving activity, it must be distinguished from art therapy services provided by a credentialed art therapist.

What to Look for When Seeking an Art Therapist

If you believe art therapy might be beneficial for you, there are ways to identify a registered, board-certified art therapist to help get started. At a minimum, an art therapist should have a master’s degree in art therapy, or a master’s degree in counseling with additional coursework in art therapy, according to guidelines outlined by the American Art Therapy Association. Building on these basic requirements, an art therapist is also required to conduct post-graduate supervised experience, as well as specific education requirements needed for registration or board certification through the Art Therapy Credentials Board.

You can expect weekly art therapy sessions to last between 30 to 60 minutes. And while the length and number of sessions can vary, one constant is that you do not need to be an artist to benefit from art therapy, and the type of art you create doesn’t matter all that much either. Trying out many different types of artistic expression is encouraged throughout your art therapy journey. The key is to find a reputable art therapist who can help you leverage various creative techniques to help express, examine, and better understand yourself through non-verbal action.

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