As seen on Psychology Today.

Art therapy is defined by the American Art Therapy Association as utilizing “active art-making, the creative process, and applied psychological theory—within a psychotherapeutic relationship—to enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities.” Often practiced in tandem with psychotherapy, art therapy is non-pharmacological and can be used as a medical intervention for mental disorders. Art therapy is an integrative practice, as it encourages alternative methods of communication and expression. In doing so, art therapy is also capable of helping “to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.” There are many different ways of participating in art therapy, such as dance movement psychotherapy; music therapy; and drawing, painting, and craft therapy.

What is the history of art therapy?

For most of human history, art has been an important method of communicating events, ideas, and stories. Closely connected to the expression of emotions, the term “art therapy” first emerged in 1942 when patients suffering from tuberculosis found freedom through drawing and painting. Art therapy practices soon moved into the mental health realm, with the foundation of the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964. As art therapy gained traction around the world, it was implemented alongside child psychotherapy. The creation of art helped children express their feelings, despite their “underdeveloped or limited vocabulary.” It quickly became a treatment for patients with trauma, grief, anxiety, and a range of other mental health disorders.

What is the efficacy of art therapy?

In 2022, a report was produced by the Australian, New Zealand and Asian Creative Arts Therapies Association called The Proven Efficacy of Creative Arts Therapies: What the Literature Tells Us. Created by Deanna Gray, the report is a compilation of over 40 peer reviewed research articles that center around the use of creative arts as therapy. The library of research supporting the efficacy of art therapy has only continued to grow in the years since the report was published. One such study led by Khadeja Alwledat found that just four sessions of creative art therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on the levels of depression, anxiety, and stress of the participants, all of whom were within three months post-stroke diagnosis. This wide array of research behind art therapy is accompanied by the establishment of initiatives, such as the NeuroArts Blueprint, and outreach projects like the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project.

The Blueprint is an interdisciplinary initiative that is working to “break new ground at the crossroads of science, the arts, and technology.” It is building a community of individuals and organizations who are invested in advancing the use of arts and aesthetic experiences as tools to improve health and well-being. In 2021, the Blueprint was released as an “authoritative, first-of-its-kind roadmap” to advance brain science research, policy, and funding, and to catalyze and mobilize “the full power of art.”

Along with the Blueprint, some institutions have begun creating projects to acknowledge the efficacy of art therapy, as well as promote the use of art therapy across their campuses. The Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan is a program within the Residential College that provides academic training in “issues surrounding incarceration and practical skills in the arts.” This project sends a newsletter to over 1,800 recipients informing them of upcoming programs and events. By reaching out to those impacted by the justice system and bringing them together with the University of Michigan community, the Prison Creative Arts Project promotes “artistic collaboration, mutual learning, and growth.”

How do you become an art therapist?

In order to become an art therapist, one must complete a master’s degree in a related field, become board certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, and complete “100 hours of supervised work along with 600 hours of a clinical internship.” Students looking to become art therapists must take graduate level courses in topics such as the creative process, psychological development, psychodiagnostics, and art therapy assessment. Beyond this, they will also receive training in studio art methods such as drawing, painting, and sculpture. Students should choose a program that is approved by the Commission on the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). These well-renowned programs enable students to pursue national credentialing and licensure after graduation. At its core, a degree in art therapy is a research-based discipline that “combines active art-making, the creative process, applied psychological theory, and the human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” These hours of training provide art therapists with the ability to work with diverse populations and to support their clients through a wide range of challenges.

What should patients look for when searching for an art therapist?

When looking for an art therapist as a patient, first make sure that the individual has completed either a CAAHEP-accredited or AATA-approved program. From there, choosing an art therapist is a matter of personal preference. Generally, the first time that you meet with an art therapist will be similar to any therapy intake session: they will ask you multiple questions about your background and experiences, and you will have the opportunity to ask them any questions, as well. You will want to choose someone with whom you feel comfortable and at-ease. It is completely acceptable to not schedule another session with a therapist if there was something you did not like. Keep in mind that going to see an art therapist is meant to solely benefit you; thus, the choice is entirely yours.

Encouraging art therapy

For therapists, the question of whether it makes clinical sense to encourage a patient to look into art therapy depends on a variety of factors. If the patient struggles to verbalize trauma, art therapy may provide them with a better means of communication. As another example, if a patient is evasive and is artistically inclined, allowing them to express themselves through art may help break down barriers, allowing them to become more cooperative.

While art therapy may exist outside of conventional clinical frameworks, therapists should recognize that it is an option from which many patients may benefit, and that it is an established method of therapy.