Creative hobbies like creating art through painting and drawing have become a therapeutic tool or effective outlet for our complicated emotions for many of us over the past year. So, have we been unknowingly participating in a collective art therapy session during the pandemic? Well, no. However, when facilitated by a trained professional, art therapy can be a helpful and insightful type of therapy for people of all ages who are dealing with a variety of challenges or problems.

Art therapy uses different types of art as a means to help the client express their emotions, cultivate self-esteem, encourage resilience, release stress, improve motor and cognitive abilities, and combat conflict. Visual arts such as photography, painting, drawing, sculpture, collage, textiles, and digital art are all mediums an art therapist may use to guide their clients through self-exploration usually in combination with another form of talk therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Who Can Teach Art Therapy?

Creative psychology concept and art psychotherapy as art therapy for the study of the human brain function and intelligence with a head profile made of pencil crayons as a 3D illustration.

An effective type of therapy for some, art therapy is used by professionals who have a minimum of a master’s degree with a basis in psychology and fine arts. Clinicians that are credentialed with the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) will have the initials ATR behind their names and board-certified practitioners will have the initials ATR-BC. Art therapists work with people in many different settings, like mental health facilities, hospitals, senior centers, private practices, and correctional institutions. 

History of Art Therapy

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In the US the Art Therapy Credentials Board was created in 1993, however, therapists had been using art in their practices beginning around the 1940s. The American Art Therapy Association, a non-profit professional and educational organization was founded in 1969. The organization's mission is "to advocate for expansion of access to professional art therapists and lead the nation in the advancement of art therapy as a regulated mental health and human services profession."

According to Good Therapy, pioneers in US in the field of art therapy include Margaret Naumburg, Hanna Kwiatkowska, Florence Cane, Edith Kramer, and Elinor Ulman. 

Margaret Naumburg in particular made large contributions to the field and is considered the "mother of art therapy." A woman before her time, she opened Walden School in New York in 1915. Walden School was a private day school that used creative processes such as performing and visual arts to help children develop their identity and explore their innate abilities. Naumburg went on to become an art therapist, taught art therapy courses, and wrote several books on the subject, such as Studies of the "Free" Art Expression of Behavior Problem Children and Adolescents as a Means of Diagnosis and Therapy. Later in life, she also helped structure a graduate-level program in art therapy that is still credited as one of the top art therapy programs worldwide.

Visual Art Therapy vs. other Types of Arts Therapies

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Because there are many types of art that one can practice when participating in visual art therapy, it stands to reason that many would think other types of expressive art would fall under the same category. This isn't the case, however.

While one person may thrive with talk therapy, like cognitive behavioral therapy, others who may have limited vocal capacity (for whatever reason) may prefer art therapy, which is a distinct discipline from the other types of expressive arts therapy. Expressive arts therapy uses different types of art, like music, dance, drama, poetry, and other forms of expression to help patients with a number of diagnoses or disorders. Others may prefer these types of expression to deal with challenges such as post-traumatic stress, attention deficit disorder, or anxiety.

A major difference in art therapy and expressive arts therapy, according to Good Therapy, is there is likely a tangible product at the end of an art therapy session. Whereas in arts therapy because other modes of expression are used, there may not be a permanent product from the therapy session.

Music therapy, in particular, is an evidence-based branch of expressive arts therapy that has a basis in neuroscience and is an established therapeutic treatment for patients with dementia, autism (to help with social skills), and Parkinson's disease. Certified music therapists, like certified art therapists, have completed certified coursework and have passed the national board certification exam.

Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist, author, and naturalist was a major proponent of music therapy. The Music Never Stopped was a 2011 film based on a case study by Sacks called "The Last Hippie." The case study followed a patient with a brain tumor and his experience with a music therapist. If you enjoy the music of Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, and The Beatles, this movie is a great one to catch.

Who Can Benefit from Art Therapy?

Young woman and little girl drawing together sitting on the floor

According to Psychology Today, "art therapy helps children, adolescents, and adults explore their emotions, improve self-esteem, manage addictions, relieve stress, improve symptoms of anxiety and depression, and cope with a physical illness or disability."

Art therapy can help patients challenge their negative emotions and can become a cathartic experience where underlying emotions and thoughts have an outlet. These interventions can become a positive coping strategy to help monitor thoughts and feelings and ultimately help the client cope outside of therapy sessions.

Treatment plans are individualized and art therapists are "trained to understand the roles that color, texture, and various art media can play in the therapeutic process and how these tools can help reveal one's thoughts, feelings, and psychological disposition," as Psychology Today describes.

Psychotherapy is integrated into art therapy, however, therapists can use other more specific types of therapy for the benefit of the client. Patients with a variety of conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, drug addiction, and anxiety have benefited from art therapy. 

Research has also shown that art therapy has increased the quality of life for people with varying medical diagnoses, such as cancer, asthma, and dementia. According to The American Art Therapy Association, "Art therapy has been found to be extremely effective with clients with eating disorders." Art therapy has also been found to be an effective pain management technique.

If traditional talk therapy isn't working anymore or trying a new form of self-care sounds good, then finding a certified art therapist may be the way to go. Reaping the benefits of art therapy, practicing art, and creating something tangible could help to reconcile emotional conflicts, reduce anxiety, and overall be beneficial for relationships, dealing with trauma, or just navigating through the pandemic.

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