Psychiatrists began using art as a method of treatment in the 1700s. It developed into a formal psychiatric discipline around the 1940s, when American and English therapists began performing studies on the influence of art on patients. Since then, the field has continued to grow and gain recognition and is now practiced globally.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is an integrated service that combines creativity and the creative process with applied psychological theory. Individuals, families, and communities can all benefit from art therapy to resolve conflict, improve communication, build resilience, and address specific, individual needs. The process is facilitated by a professional art therapist and can be performed in many settings, including hospitals, schools, private clinics, crisis centers, and seniors communities.

patient in an art therapy session

How Does Art Therapy Work?

By encouraging their clients to create art, art therapists help them express themselves openly. The therapist then examines the creations from a psychological angle to determine their mental and emotional significance. Clients and therapists then work together to decode the meaning behind the art and work to resolve the deeper issues present. Art therapy doesn't require artistic talent; just a willingness to create and explore the unconscious mind.

patient in an art therapy session

Who is Art Therapy For?

Art therapy can help a vast range of people and issues. Any age group, from adolescents and children to seniors and diverse communities, can benefit. In individual and family cases, it can be used to treat depression, anxiety, and mental health disorders, build self-esteem or self-awareness, cope with illness, disability or addiction, and improve cognitive and sensory-motor function.

At a community level, art therapy can help resolve conflict, bridge gaps in language or culture, overcome trauma within the community — such as natural disasters or attacks — and aid in relationship building and stigma reduction.

patient in an art therapy session

What are the Different Types of Art Therapy?

There are eight prevailing types of art therapy:

  • Paining
  • Drawing
  • Sculpting
  • Collaging
  • Photography
  • Writing
  • Textiles
  • Digital

The medium used will vary depending on the client (individual vs. community), their physical abilities, willingness to explore and create, and the specific disorder or treatment needs. Specific therapists may also primarily offer a certain type.

two people working at a pottery wheel

What are the Specific Conditions Art Therapy is Used For?

Some of the most common conditions and health issues art therapy treats are

  • Aging-related illnesses
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Cancer
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional difficulties or trauma
  • Family or relationship issues
  • Psychological symptoms brought on by other medical issues
  • PTSD
  • Psychosocial issues
  • Substance abuse disorders

Treatment plans are developed by clinicians based on the client's specific needs.

patient in an art therapy session

Who Can be an Art Therapist?

In the U.S. and Canada, art therapists require a master's degree in art therapy, along with a minimum of 1000 hours of supervised clinical practicum. This ensures therapists are practicing to a high standard and in the best interests and safety of clients. In addition, therapists must adhere to a code of ethics and obtain liability insurance.

patient in an art therapy session

Is There Research to Support Art Therapy?

Art therapy is widely supported in the treatment of both mental and physical disorders. In specific cases, it was found to be effective for traumatic brain injuries, schizophrenia, stress disorders, and physical ailments such as epilepsy. The American Art Therapy Association has a listing of studies and art therapy outcomes available to demonstrate its effectiveness.

patient in an art therapy session

What are the Other Benefits of Art Therapy?

There are several additional benefits of art therapy beyond treating physical and mental conditions. Any creative artistic practice has been found to reduce stress and have a positive impact on mental health. While art therapy takes the creative practice to the next level, even taking time to do something creative alone can help one navigate difficult situations, regulate mood, and improve focus.

patient in an art therapy session

What are Some Considerations Before Trying Art Therapy?

Artistic talent is not required for art therapy, and it's important to separate that expectation before stating. Therapists may try different mediums to help clients break through that barrier and express themselves freely. Similarly, art therapy is not a form of art class. There is no focus on improving artistic technique or the quality of the finished product, but instead on the subconscious, the imagination, and the inner self.

patient in an art therapy session

How Do I Get Started?

Depending on your location, a qualified art therapist can be found by visiting the Art Therapy Credentials Board Inc. Once you are connected with a therapist, set up a consultation with them and ask any questions so you understand the expectations and are sure you are being treated by a professional with whom you're comfortable.

client talking with a therapist or psychologist


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