In 1942, British artist Adrian Hill coined the term "art therapy" when he realized the therapeutic value of drawing and painting during his recovery from tuberculosis. He encouraged his fellow patients to engage in art projects as well. Soon after, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other mental healthcare professionals began to employ similar techniques in their work.
Art therapy gradually developed into a recognized field thanks to major contributions from individuals like Florence Cane, Hanna Kwiatowski, and Margaret Naumburg, the last of whom is widely regarded as the founder of the American art therapy movement. At its core, art therapy embraces the idea that creative expression can overcome language limitations, thereby promoting access to self-awareness and healing.
How Does Art Therapy Work?
Like traditional therapy or counseling, art therapy aims to help people — especially those dealing with psychological or emotional difficulties — achieve a greater sense of well-being. Both traditional therapy and art therapy are facilitated by licensed mental health professionals. The key difference between the two methods comes down to the primary techniques utilized in work with clients — namely, verbal discussion versus hands-on creative tasks.
While art therapy has been shown to provide benefits to patients with a variety of issues, it doesn't always work for everyone. Limited results may occur when individuals resist full cooperation due to skepticism about the efficacy of art therapy and/or doubt in their own creative abilities.
What Are the Goals of Art Therapy
Because art therapy is used to treat a large spectrum of psychological, emotional, mental, and physical issues, the immediate and long-term goals of a therapy session can vary widely from one patient to the next.
Adults often seek out art therapy to help cope with recent and past trauma or to combat mental and behavioral difficulties
Some art therapists work exclusively with children. As a primarily nonverbal, sensory-based activity, art therapy can provide a number of benefits to children on the autism spectrum who face difficulties expressing themselves verbally. Art therapy also assists children with ADHD, mood disorders, and trauma from past experiences by helping them learn to cope with strong emotions and to self-regulate mood or behavior.
Art therapy provides benefits to adult patients as well. Adults often seek out art therapy to help cope with recent and past trauma or to combat mental and behavioral difficulties like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, stress, or substance abuse. For these patients, the goals of an art therapy session typically include the following:
- fostering increased self-awareness
- regulating emotions and behavior
- processing complex thoughts
- improving self-esteem
Art therapy is less commonly employed to help patients maintain cognitive and manipulative skills. Finally, for some individuals, art therapy simply provides a safe space to express themselves and explore their interests through art.
Art Therapy Techniques
Art therapists work with individuals in a variety of settings, including private-practice offices, schools, hospitals, crisis centers, mental health clinics, and rehabilitation facilities. In each of these locations, patients may attend sessions individually or as part of a group, depending on their needs and preferences.
Art therapy techniques include drawing, painting, sculpting, coloring, and collaging
Individual sessions allow for more focused attention between the patient and therapist and are ideal for individuals who might feel shame or embarrassment. While group sessions involve less personal attention, patients receive the added benefits of decreased isolation and increased relatability. Group therapy also often leads to the development of secondary support relationships between group members.
Art therapy techniques include drawing, painting, sculpting, coloring, and collaging. Techniques can be modified for different patients. Children may use finger paints rather than working with brushes, for example. Similarly, sculpting might involve traditional carving methods or hand-molded clay. Neither previous art experience nor natural ability is required to participate in and benefit from treatment.
The design of an art therapy session is similar for all clients, but children and adult patients often have vastly different experiences within this set structure
Art therapy sessions typically begin with patient assessment. For a client visiting for the first time, this involves detailed information gathering. For return clients, assessment is typically a brief discussion regarding their current feelings and any important updates since the last visit. Therapists then introduce patients to an artistic exercise or task. During this task, therapists observe and assist as needed. Afterward, therapists engage in a discussion with the patient, focusing on reflection and analysis. Topics may include thoughts, feelings, moods, or memories prompted by the activity.
The design of an art therapy session is similar for all clients, but children and adult patients often have vastly different experiences within this set structure. Adults engaged in art therapy often tackle long-term, complex issues or trauma. For children, shorter attention spans and less life experience mean art therapy typically focuses on active engagement with the present, exploring thoughts and feelings as they occur.Art Therapy Techniques
Health Issues Treated by Art Therapy
Considering artistic activity a therapeutic tool comes naturally to many of us, which explains the surging popularity of adult coloring books and mandala smartphone apps in our busy, modern world. Art can be both universal and restricted, chaotic and serene, concrete and abstract. Art therapy harnesses all these infinite possibilities to help facilitate healing, growth, and increased self-awareness.
Clinically, art therapy is used to help treat dozens of psychological, mental, and physical ailments. In the sections below, we explore five of the most common issues: stress, childhood trauma, addiction, loss/grief, and depression.
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but sometimes this natural state of heightened tension can get out of hand. Debilitating stress may be caused by work, school, or family obligations.
Clinical art therapy helps combat stress in several ways. Foremost, the simple act of drawing, painting, or participating in another art activity provides a source of distraction. Complete engagement in an artistic task frequently leads to a psychological state called "flow," colloquially known as being "in the zone." Flow shares many of the characteristics and benefits of meditation, including increased feelings of happiness and an ability to think more clearly.
Trauma does not discriminate; it can impact any person at any time. That said, children are typically more vulnerable to stress caused by trauma, as they lack the skills needed to cope with certain difficult situations. Childhood trauma can occur from witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse, bullying, loss or grief, homelessness, drug abuse, or violence.
Art therapy can help children deal with traumatic experiences by teaching them how to express, understand, and cope with emotions through art. Art therapy may help facilitate open discussion, but it can also be profoundly beneficial for children unable to verbalize how they feel, providing a safe, nonverbal, tactile outlet instead.
Approximately one-tenth of all Americans struggle with alcohol or drug addiction. More than 30 million Americans suffer from an eating disorder. Clinical treatment for these conditions generally utilizes a combination of therapy techniques to provide several pathways to healing. Common therapy options include individual, group, skills-focused, relapse-prevention, and art therapy.
Art therapy provides addiction patients an avenue to explore aspects of their life that they may find difficult to express in words. Patients utilize art therapy activities to work through the experiences, emotions, and issues that caused or worsened addiction symptoms. Art therapy is especially useful for those who find traditional talk therapy difficult or unsuccessful.
We most commonly associate feelings of loss and grief with the death of a loved one, but emotionally charged grief experiences come in many forms. Individuals may seek out grief therapy due to divorce, serious illness, death of a pet, or a major life change.
Art therapy can help grief-stricken individuals heal in several ways. Participating in an artistic activity allows patients to express themselves freely, to honor and remember the past, and to reflect on changes caused by the loss. For individuals dealing with difficult questions (e.g., "Why did this happen?"), art therapy provides an avenue to explore the meaning and mysteries of life.
In any given year, depression impacts approximately 17.3 million American adults and 1.9 million American children, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. The true numbers may be even greater, as some individuals suffering from depression never pursue formal diagnosis.
Studies show that art therapy helps reduce symptoms in individuals suffering from moderate or severe depression. Art therapy helps facilitate honest communication between patient and therapist, especially beneficial for those who struggle to open up about their inner turmoil. Furthermore, art therapy activities can increase dopamine levels and decrease feelings of emotional "numbness."
How to Become an Art Therapist
Like any aspiring clinical professional, art therapists must complete extensive education, training, and certification procedures before beginning work in the field.
At minimum, entry-level art therapy work requires a master's degree with relevant coursework in creative processes, psychological development, and clinical assessment. Graduate programs typically also require at least 100 supervised practicum hours and at least 600 supervised hours within a clinical art therapy internship. After graduating, aspiring art therapists must pursue licensure in order to begin professional practice. National licensure is available through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. State-regulated art therapy licensure is also available in certain jurisdictions.
Publishing: Include a call to action box (similar to C in the Component Appendix) for the following link:Art Therapy Program Overview
How to Find an Art Therapist
There are a number of ways to find qualified art therapists in your local community. Consider asking friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, or your primary care doctor for recommendations. You can also search for licensed therapists online using a basic search engine or one of the dedicated directory websites listed below.
- Art Therapist Locator The American Art Therapy Association helps users find licensed professionals on its website. Search by location or click and drag the easy-to-use map to find an art therapist near you.
- Find a Credentialed Art Therapist The Art Therapy Credentials Board provides free database listings of professionals across the United States. Users can search for an art therapist by location, credential, or last name.