IMAGE Children and adults who have been exposed to unspeakable trauma, as well as those suffering from depression, anxiety, or other serious mental or physical illnesses, can reap enormous benefits from the healing process of art therapy—a therapy which uses paint and paper, glue and scissors, images and colors to symbolically express the depth and intensity of emotional pain. Art therapy can be a way for people with physical or emotional pain to heal.

Defining Art Therapy

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.

Although human beings have used art as a mode of expression since the dawn of time, art therapy was not recognized as a distinct profession until the 1940s. Psychiatrists began to become interested in the artwork created by patients with mental illness. At the same time, educators were also paying attention to children's artwork as it reflected their developmental, emotional, and cognitive growth. Within a few decades, hospitals and rehabilitation centers were incorporating art therapy with their traditional psychotherapy programs.

Special techniques are often particularly useful in helping patients express their feelings, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety or resolve emotional conflicts. In the unstructured approach, patients might select from a variety of materials and media (paint, pastels, clay) and use them however they choose, allowing unconscious material to rise to the surface. Then the therapist might ask the client to draw a family picture, which can help elicit complex family dynamics such as unhealthy patterns of relating or poor communication skills.

Groups of people struggling with other issues, such as cancer survivors, might work together to create a collage or mural that can then be used to stimulate discussion of coping strategies.

Neurologically impaired adults in nursing homes and in senior citizen centers can use art therapy techniques such as free-drawing, mask-making and finger-painting to help even nonverbal patients perform life review, express regrets, resolve unresolved losses, and come to terms with issues such as aging, grief and fear of death.

Where is Art Therapy Used?

Art therapy is based on knowledge of human developmental and psychological theories and is an effective treatment for people with developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological problems. Art therapists must possess a minimum of a master's degree and undergo a supervised practicum and postgraduate internship. They practice in a variety of settings, including:

  • Community mental health centers and psychiatric clinics
  • Hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and hospices
  • Correctional and forensic facilities
  • Nursing homes and senior centers
  • Schools and early intervention programs
  • Disaster relief centers and homeless shelters
  • Drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs

Art therapists can practice solo or may be part of a treatment team that includes physicians, psychologists, nurses, social workers, counselors, and teachers. Art therapy, done in individual or group sessions, can be used with patients of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds who have any one of a number of physical and emotional disorders, including:

  • Schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illnesses
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder caused by natural disasters, upsetting events, or abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Substance abuse
  • Chronic pain, medical problems, or terminal illness
  • Family issues

How It Might Work

The theory behind art therapy is based partially on the fact that creativity and healing may come from the same place.

Art therapy is not merely arts and crafts, or purely recreational. It is multi-sensory and teaches people to use objects purposefully and to communicate their pain with the outside world. Art therapy reduces stress, speeds up healing time, and improves communication.

If you think art therapy may be for you, talk with your doctor about getting a referral. You can also get information on qualified art therapists from the American Art Therapy Association website.