Art therapists understand the truth behind the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words."
For some people, it's easier to relate their feelings, thoughts, and anxieties visually rather than verbally. These complex emotions aren't easily understood or communicated by children, adolescents, or adults, causing them to seek out new mediums.
To help this group convey their emotions in more constructive ways, art therapists provide a non-threatening environment that allows them to create images and objects that reflect their inner plights.
Art offers a means of coming to terms with difficulties in life, such as physical illness, mental health concerns, or traumatic events. It provides concrete physical evidence of what someone is experiencing, and can even lead that person to discover new solutions based on their creations.
Therapists help patients interpret their creative works, guiding them through the assessment and recognition of particular concerns. With their knowledge of art and interpretation, coupled with an understanding of counseling techniques and strategies, art therapists give clients alternative routes to healing.
Where do Art Therapists Work?
Since art therapy is useful for a diverse population of troubled clients, therapists work in a variety of settings. Some places art therapists practice include:
- Psychiatric and Rehabilitation Facilities
- Wellness Centers
- Crisis Centers
- Senior Communities
- Private Practice
Source: American Art Therapy Association
Who do Art Therapists Help?
You don't need to be an accomplished artist for art therapy to help -- even simple scribbles, doodles, or splashes of paint reveal emotions in the mind of a client.
According to the American Art Therapy Association, people of all ages and backgrounds can use art to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage their behaviors, and increase their self-esteem.
Art Therapy is Particularly Useful for:
- Children or others people who cannot communicate effectively
- People with adverse physical health conditions, such as cancer or brain injuries
- People with autism, dementia, depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders
These people may feel that family and friends are unable to understand what they're going through, or even lack the ability to communicate their pain verbally. Because art is so subjective, people create their own interpretations of their experiences in ways that make sense to them.
Therapists using art in practice allow the creative works to guide their interactions with clients, giving them insight into their thoughts and feelings. By offering suggestions, interpretations, and questioning symbolism, art therapists help clients work through their physical and psychological troubles.
Specific Use Cases of Art Therapy
Using Art Therapy with Children
For many children, art is just another aspect of play - an aspect that can lend itself well to counselors and psychologists working with youth.
According to "Art Therapy for Children: How it Leads to Change," by researcher Diane Waller, the fundamental principles of art therapy make it a natural tool for therapists. These fundamentals include:
- Visual image making is an important aspect of childhood learning.
- Art therapy enables a child to get in touch with feelings that are not easily expressed in words.
- The art can act as "a container" for powerful emotions.
- The art acts as a means of communication between child and therapist.
- It serves as a means of transferring negative emotions and behaviors.
Source: Using Art Therapy with Children
Using Art Therapy in Counseling
According to The Handbook of Art Therapy, there are a number of advantages that art offers to therapists. While the primary advantage of art is that it's an expressive and nearly universal form of language, art also:
- Taps into the unconscious to help the individual express covert conflicts, bringing awareness to these thoughts.
- Acts as a metaphor for conflicts, emotions, and situations.
- Acts as a bridge between the counselor and client, especially when subject matter is difficult or embarrassing.
- Creates a visible record, allowing clients to review past sessions and track improvement or changes.
- Gets people "doing" rather than just thinking, which can be a motivating force for many clients.
Source: The Handbook of Art Therapy
Art Therapy and Alzheimer's
Alzheimer's, a damaging brain disease, can have disastrous effects on someone's short and medium-term memory. As it progresses, victims appear increasingly detached from reality and events around them, unfortunately.
While no cure for Alzheimer's has been discovered, counselors are discovering the positive benefit of art therapy with victims of the disease. According to "Is Art Therapy the Answer to Dementia" published in The Boston Globe, painting, listening to music, and dancing call to mind past emotions and experiences.
The article notes neurology professor Robert Stern as describing how artistic endeavors tend to exploit the areas of the brain that are least affected by Alzheimer's. One woman listening to a song remembered hearing it years ago on a first date, giving her a rush of emotions she hadn't felt in years.
"Using music and art and movements that don't rely on verbal skills allows people to succeed," said program director Diana Miller. "The primary language is emotion with this disease."
Art therapists guide Alzheimer's patients through sessions, asking what they see in artwork, how does it make them feel, or if they can remember feeling like that before. By eliciting emotions in patients, art therapists hope to reduce stress and improve their quality of life.
Offering Artistic Interpretation to Others
Therapists observe their clients creating artwork, from inception to completion. In each step of the process, the therapist asks questions about what the client is trying to express, and what certain qualities of a work might portray.
Therapists should introduce art into sessions with clients who lack the skills to communicate effectively, or with those who are embarrassed or ashamed of what is troubling them, according to The Handbook of Art Therapy by Cathy Malchiodi.
For example, consider a therapist working with a young child who was referred due to anger issues in school and at home. In the initial meeting with the child, the therapist might ask him or her to draw a house with a family inside. The placement of the family, what each member is doing, and how many members are present describe far more than meets the eye to an art therapist.
The Therapist might note that:
- a father figure isn't in the picture
- the child has separated him or herself from other members of the family
- the house is rather empty and without furniture or designated rooms
Taking these cues, the therapist can gently ask why the artist made those choices when drawing.
In proceeding sessions, the therapist might lead the child through "anger exercises," where the child learns that it's okay to be frustrated, but that anger should be expressed safely. The therapist might ask what angered the child today, and how they could represent that anger with paint instead of bad words or physical aggression.
While children might lack the cognitive skills to express their emotions, other clients with newly diagnosed physical illnesses may also feel at a loss for words. Debilitating illnesses like cancer cause people to undergo psychological crises, where they question the remainder of their existence and withdraw from supports.
The study "Art Therapy with Three Women Diagnosed with Cancer," published in The Arts in Psychotherapy, notes that grief, decreased self-esteem, isolation, and a loss of control are all side effects of cancer. In the article, art therapist Erin Borgmann describes the case of Tess, a 42-year-old woman who had undergone chemotherapy, losing her hair and becoming very self-conscious.
Borgmann noted that Tess was overwhelmed and caught off guard by the cancer diagnosis, additionally feeling a lack of support because she had moved away from home just beforehand. She suggested Tess create a roadmap of her journey through cancer diagnosis and treatment to gain perspective.
Using pastels, Tess depicted herself with long hair, driving a car away from home, to the hospital. After this initial drawing, Tess noted feeling slightly better and that it was nice to focus on something else other than her anxiety. Borgmann then asked her to continue the road past the hospital.
Tess drew herself in the present, halfway across a bridge. The left side was shown as dark and in the past, while the future on the right was bright and lush. She saw herself overcoming her difficulties in treatment, moving toward a future where she had control of her life once again.