Certain traumas or troubling experiences leave individuals unable to put words to them. Recounting these experiences is too painful, or the individual simply can’t make sense of the feelings, thoughts, and emotions surrounding the event or events that caused the emotional distress.
Art therapy encourages individuals struggling with a number of emotional, social, behavioral, and physical challenges to use the process of art making to begin processing their experiences, and find a starting point for expressing themselves. It’s an act of communication, with or without words, that takes place between a client and a trained art therapist, who combines psychotherapeutic theories and principles with an aesthetic understanding of the creative process.
Using paint, chalk, clay, collage, or other types of media, either directed by the therapist or self-directed, the client begins an art piece incorporating symbols and metaphors representing an issue or problem. The client can dialogue while creating, or might wait until finished to find meaning in the creation.
In some cases, a physical injury, disability, depression (see Depression) or anxiety (see Anxiety) leaves individuals stressed and anxious. Therapists use art in these instances to help clients relax, similar to other relaxation techniques therapists employ, but this involves creating – an act that improves self-esteem and helps clients to regain a self-identify while providing a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
Who Benefits from Art Therapy?
Children, adolescents, adults, older adults, groups and families needing treatment for:
Art Therapy treats the following:
- depression, anxiety, or other social-emotional problems
- substance abuse
- sexual abuse and/or domestic violence
- emotional adjustment to a physical or mental disability
- coping with a medical illness
- marital difficulties
- family relationship issues
- eating disorders
How Does Art Therapy Work?
Creating a safe, non-threatening environment, the art therapist either suggests a topic for the individual to explore creatively, or, depending on the circumstances, invites the individual to create freely, giving little or no direction.
Creating art that relates to a certain event or experience invites the patient to think and feel deeply about the experience, transforming the event into symbols or metaphors. By creating their own symbols and metaphors for the subject, they are able to define the images themselves – an important aspect in self-discovery and recovery. Only the client knows and explains what the symbols and metaphors represent; the therapist guides the client to a deeper discovery of what the client intends the work to mean.
Through the process of taking the troubling experience out of the client’s “inner self” and placing it on paper, board, canvas, or sculpture, patients are able to gain a safe distance from it. They feel safer talking about the artwork rather than trying to orally explain, occasionally in troubling terms, their problems or issues. Talking takes place between the client and art therapist, but it’s done about the art, which is more manageable for those with intense, and sometimes confusing, feelings.
Through this process, gradually, the client’s inner world begins to change, and they increase self-awareness, understanding, and self-acceptance.
Benefits of Art Therapy
The benefits of art therapy are many, and can often motivate clients in powerful and unique ways. Art Therapy Initiative (ATI), an independent London-based art therapy service working in the context of political violence and trauma, states that art therapy can:
Effects of Art Therapy
- demand active participation of the individual, combating apathy, boredom and alienation
- be a shared language, crossing other language barriers
- allow for catharsis
- encourage choice and decision-making
- increase self-esteem
- foster creativity, enabling different responses to difficult situations
- allow for insight-oriented work
- allow for social and interpersonal learning
At the center of art therapy, ATI states, is the understanding that the process leads to change. This occurs on many different levels: through the absorption in the art-making process; through the dynamics of the client-therapist relationship; through the dynamics of conscious and unconscious; and through reflections on the content of the image itself.
Where do Art Therapists Work?
Art therapists work in a wide range of settings. Depending on degrees and state certification requirements, some art therapists work in private practice. Others work in public and private psychiatric hospitals, prisons, family welfare agencies, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, drug and alcohol units, women’s health centers, domestic violence shelters, and community health centers.
What Art Therapy Is NOT
- arts and crafts
- a purely recreational activity
- being able to draw or paint, or sculpt
- the therapist ‘reading’ or ‘interpreting’ artwork
- creating artwork to be displayed in a gallery or museum
- a skill that requires previous art skills
- teaching individuals how to do art, or art education
Art therapy degree programs strike a balance between the sensibilities and insights of the artists with the skills and training of a clinician. Art therapists aren’t teaching others how to become artists, rather how to use art for healing, recovery, and optimal mental health.