Art Therapy | Program Overview

Art therapists use art and human creativity to help individuals overcome psychological, social, and personal issues. If you have a passion for the arts and a desire to help others, an art therapy degree might be the perfect option.

This guide provides details about this counseling specialization and covers topics such as the history of art therapy, the differences between art therapy and general counseling, and common careers for art therapy graduates. The sections below detail how to become an art therapist and explore factors to consider when selecting an art therapy program.

What is Art Therapy?

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The term "art therapy" was coined in the early 1900s by Adrian Hill, a British artist who used drawing to pass the time while recovering from tuberculosis. However, art therapy existed long before the 20th century. Paleolithic cave paintings depicting game animals helped inspire successful hunting efforts.

Art therapy developed into a professional discipline in the 20th century, when doctors, psychiatrists, and educators began to utilize art expression in their practice. Art therapy pioneers include John Levy, who was the first to use art therapy in child psychotherapy, and Margaret Naumburg, who believed spontaneous art expression carried inherent symbolic significance.

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Today, art therapy is a widely used and well respected counseling technique that benefits diverse groups of people. Under the guidance of a trained art therapist, children, adolescents, and adults can use artistic expression to ease symptoms of anxiety and depression. Art therapy can also help patients cope with addictions or physical disabilities, as well as improve cognitive function, sensory and motor skills, self-esteem, and self-awareness.

Art therapy may involve drawing, painting, coloring, writing, photography, or sculpting, but art therapy requires no artistic talent. The purpose of art therapy is not to create pieces with artistic value, but to promote personal understanding.

Differences Between an Art Therapy Program and a General Counseling or Therapy Program

Graduate degrees in both art therapy and general counseling fulfill most states' minimum education requirements for entry-level clinical positions. Some schools offer art therapy master's degrees as standalone programs, while others offer art therapy as a concentration within a general counseling program.

Both art therapy and general counseling programs encourage self-examination and analysis for the benefit of clients. Students in both disciplines work toward similar learning outcomes. The key difference between these programs lies in the practical application of skills and knowledge.

While general counseling curricula primarily focus on traditional methodologies, such as cognitive and behavioral therapies, art therapy programs explore how the creative process can help individuals grow, understand their emotions, and work through issues. Art therapy focuses largely on client introspection and the inner experience.

Sample Coursework

General counseling and art therapy students generally take some similar courses, especially in programs that offer art therapy as a counseling concentration. However, the art therapy discipline requires specific skills and knowledge beyond general counseling topics. For example, art therapy degree programs often require studio art courses, during which students gain knowledge of artistic concepts and experience with various mediums and techniques.

Below are common courses for each program type. These lists are not comprehensive, and curriculum requirements vary by school.

General Counseling or Therapy Program

  • Counseling and psychotherapy theories
  • Techniques in counseling
  • Ethics in counseling
  • Multicultural counseling
  • Evaluation and assessment
  • Research and statistics
  • Group counseling

Art Therapy Program

  • History and theory of art therapy
  • Art therapy treatment models
  • Ethics in art therapy
  • Art psychotherapy
  • Studio art

What Can You Do With an Art Therapy Degree?

Art therapists provide counseling services and support to individuals facing emotional, mental, or physical issues. These professionals facilitate creative activity and expression through various art mediums. These techniques help clients explore difficult emotions, improve function and behavior, and gain relief from anxiety or stress.

An art therapist's specific duties depends on their work setting. For example, professionals employed in schools primarily use art therapy techniques to improve the cognitive function and motor skills of children. Art therapists who work a psychiatric facility, however, may help clients overcome trauma and mental illness.

What Conditions Can Art Therapy Treat?

Art therapists can serve a diverse client base of adults and children dealing with a variety of issues. Professionals commonly use art therapy to treat conditions including:

  • Learning disabilities and behavioral disorders in children

  • Substance abuse and addiction

  • Grief and loss

  • Depression

  • Anxiety

  • Stress

  • Couple and familial issues

  • Trauma and PTSD

Where Do Art Therapists Work?

Like general counselors and therapists, art therapists typically work in health facilities. However, art therapists can also work in nonmedical, art-oriented environments such as:

  • Hospitals
  • Psychiatric clinics
  • Outpatient mental health facilities
  • Private practice offices
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Schools
  • Art studios
  • Art workshops

How Much Do Art Therapists Make?

The table below includes average salaries for art therapists according to experience level. Additional factors, including employer and geographic location, can impact individual earning potential.

Explore more about art therapists here.

Art Therapy Degree Programs

In order to become an art therapist, individuals usually need a master's degree. Consequently, master's offerings comprise the majority of art therapy degree programs. However, an increasing number of schools offer bachelor's and Ph.D. programs in art therapy. Each degree level qualifies graduates for different career options.

Online Art Therapy Degree Programs

Students who earn a master's in art therapy online often have more flexibility than on-campus students. Online learners are not limited by geographic location, and professionals can earn a degree while working full time.

Online art therapy degree programs typically feature the same course requirements as on-campus programs. Online learning requires dedication and time management. Distance learners view recorded or streamed lectures, complete weekly assignments, and participate in peer discussions. Additionally, most programs require in-person elements such as studio art projects and local clinical experiences in counseling and/or art therapy.

Factors to Consider When Selecting an Art Therapy Program

Whether you are pursuing a graduate or undergraduate degree, selecting a college requires careful consideration. Before applying or enrolling, students should thoroughly research a variety of program options. Primary factors to consider include accreditation, cost, and program format.

Accreditation

Attending an accredited college is vital for aspiring art therapists, as a degree from an unaccredited school may not qualify candidates for professional licensure. Accreditation requires an independent, third-party evaluation of a school's curricula, policies, faculty qualifications, and budget. Schools can receive institutional accreditation, and departments and programs can earn field-specific accreditation.

Institutions can receive regional or national accreditation. Regional accreditation is the older and more prestigious of the two types. Degrees and credits earned from regionally accredited schools transfer easily between institutions. Regional and national accreditation apply to every program offered by accredited schools.

Art therapy programs can earn specialized accreditation from the American Art Therapy Association and the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Cost

Prospective learners should only consider programs with costs that align with their budget. In-state public institutions are typically the most affordable options; out-of-state and private schools generally have higher tuition rates. Although tuition prices for online and on-campus programs are generally comparable, online students often save on costs such as campus housing, meal plans, and transportation.

On-Campus vs. Online

When deciding whether to pursue your degree online or on campus, consider your lifestyle and logistical needs. Your distance from campus and scheduling availability may impact your ability to attend on-campus classes. Additionally, consider whether you learn better in a classroom setting or independently, as well as whether you prioritize in-person networking opportunities or accessible learning options.

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