Effectiveness Of Art Therapy: The Role Of Art Therapy For Mental Health

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated April 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The effectiveness of art therapy has been debated, but the most current research points to it having many potential benefits for mental and physical health. Art therapy interventions have been accepted as an effective alternative or complementary therapy used by mental health professionals in institutions like schools and hospitals. This article explores the role of art in mental health based on clinical research by mental health experts. 

Exploring your inner creativity may improve your mental health

What is art therapy?

The Since the beginning of human civilization, the arts have been an integral part of human existence for millennia, aiding with expression, healing, teaching, and learning. Art therapy uses creative expression as a therapeutic device. There are various types of art therapies that use different art methods, including dancing, singing, drawing, painting, pottery, and acting.

Art therapy has benefits as a stand-alone practice, but it is typically most effective when combined with other forms of psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Psychodynamic art therapy focuses on the subconscious mind, revealing unconscious thoughts and beliefs that develop in childhood. Creative expression through writing, drawing, and other art forms could have the ability to tap into the subconscious mind and bring underlying cognitive processes to light. 

A 2014 randomized controlled trial on the effectiveness of psychodynamic group art therapy for treating patients diagnosed with schizophrenia found that patients who had attended group art therapy had significant improvements in self-awareness of their emotional states and that of others. Art therapy may even be able to prevent mental illness by helping people to process trauma and improve self-esteem. 

What are different benefits of art therapy?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy supports mental health by improving cognitive function, self-esteem, self-awareness, emotional resilience, and social skills. Arts interventions have been used to support the physical and mental well-being of individuals and communities with therapeutic, preventative, and rehabilitative effects. 

In this next section, we explore the evidence-based benefits of art therapy from the standpoint of mental health researchers. 

Stress management

Stress is one of the major contributing factors to mental distress and physical illness.  Could art therapy be efficacious in reducing stress? Research suggests that it art therapy might be just one way to relieve stress and reduce the impact of stressful life events on the mind and body. 

One study on art therapy found that just 45 minutes of creative art-making reduced the levels of cortisol (stress hormone) in the brain for 75% of adult participants. That is just one study, so to determine the actual effectiveness of art therapy, we need to look at a larger review of data. 

A systematic review of 37 studies on art therapy found that art therapy interventions reduced stress levels for around 80% of participants. This research suggests that most adults who participate in creative arts therapies benefit from stress reduction. 

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Art therapy for depression and anxiety

Art therapy has potential benefits for people experiencing depression and anxiety symptoms. Creative expression may be able to help individuals safely express strong emotions, build self-esteem, and process past traumas. In one study on the benefits of clay art therapy, researchers found that one of the potential prospective benefits of art therapy for mental health disorders like chronic depression and anxiety is that it can improve emotional regulation. 

One of the largest systematic reviews yet on the effectiveness of art therapy for depression and anxiety looked at the data from over 400 different clinical studies. It found that art therapy had positive effects on individuals living with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, cognitive impairment, and more. 

Researchers have also noted that the things expressed by individuals in art therapy could help practitioners make more accurate diagnoses so they can and deliver more effective care to their clients who live with depression and anxiety.


“Men’s Sheds” is a project that aims to reduce social isolation for men by allowing them to go and practice woodworking, pottery, photography, and art. Research shows that this type of community-based art therapy group improved the social skills, self-esteem, self-worth, and cognitive functioning of participants–leading to improvements in overall physical and mental well-being.

Self-image can be a vital component of personal transformation and improving overall well-being. Research supports the idea that art therapies can be effective self-esteem-building activities. Creative expression through artwork can enable people to see that they do have the power to create the life that they want and improve their sense of independence and responsibility. 

According to a scoping review by the World Health Organization, music therapy can improve self-esteem, self-image, and confidence for individuals processing past traumas or experiencing mental health conditions. Drama activities were also found to improve self-image for teens with body image concerns. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may also be able to avoid and prevent victimization by using art therapy to improve overall self-esteem. 

Art therapy for people with autism 

According to the DSM-5, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and building relationships. Art therapy may be an effective way for adults and children with autism to build social skills, improve self-esteem, and express themselves through creativity rather than verbally. 

Building confidence through art therapy can aid people with autism in having more fulfilling social interactions and expressing themselves more openly. A study from Iran on the effects of art therapy on children with autism found that attending painting therapy groups improved their ability to express their feelings and interact socially. 

Art therapy for treating PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that typically occurswhere someone has difficulty recovering after someone experiences a traumatic event or series of events. Symptoms can include intrusive, distressing memories, nightmares, dissociation, changes in cognitive functioning, physiological stress, and more. Art therapy may be an effective tool for coping with the symptoms of trauma and healing from it. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

Art therapy for combat veterans with PTSD has been found to have some benefits, such as helping to improve the recall of suppressed memories. A randomized controlled trial from 2018 found that art therapy could help veterans to remember, express, and safely process past traumatic memories. 

Pain management

Chronic pain and serious health conditions such as cancer can contribute to symptoms of depression and mental distress. Art therapy may be an effective way to reduce physical pain for patients by relieving stress and anxiety. The American Cancer Society recommends art therapy as a possible complementary therapy for coping with the effects of cancer.  

A study on the benefits of art therapy for patients undergoing chemotherapy found that attending art therapy sessions even short-term improved the mental and physical health of the participants. The positive effects of the art therapy sessions were still present in a 4-four month follow-up, showing the potential for long-term benefits as well as short-term ones. 

What does a typical art therapy session look like?

If you are considering art therapy, it can help to know what to expect. There are different types of art therapy including painting, drawing, collage, pottery, woodworking, drama, and writing. Some people may worry that they are not “good enough” at art to participate in art therapy, but there is no need to have preexisting experience with making art or to be “good” at it to benefit from its therapeutic effects. 

Exploring your inner creativity may improve your mental health

Art therapy can be done individually or as a group. Therapists sometimes suggest creating art as a “homework” assignment for their patients as well. Experienced art therapists will guide you through the creative process, while also letting you take the reins on your creativity and express yourself fully. 

During the art therapy session, the therapist may quietly observe you as you make art, or they may make art along with you. Art therapy may be more effective when combined with talk therapy, but you can also make art in silence if that makes you feel the most comfortable. In either case, you can still reap the benefits of art therapy, such as stress reduction. 

How can I access art therapy online?

One of the benefits of art therapies is that art interventions can be used to reach marginalized groups who face barriers to mental health care. Music, visual arts, and other expressive arts may be more accessible to some people than traditional mental health services, or more appealing to those reluctant to reach out for professional care in a clinical setting. 

Online therapy through platforms like BetterHelp can be a useful option for some individuals because it may reduce the impact of possible barriers such as travel, cost, and location. With online therapy, individuals can choose to speak with their provider through video chats, phone calls, or in-app messaging. They can also search for a therapist who meets their preferences, such as someone who practices art therapy or another form of alternative care. 

Art therapy in the digital world is a relatively new concept, but research shows that the effectiveness of online art therapies can be the same as traditional in-person interventions. In an integrative review of digital art interventions, researchers screened more than 400 records and chose to analyze 12 studies in particular12 to analyze. In this review, they found that online-delivered art therapy could be a promising solution to help patients overcome treatment barriers and can have the same positive effects as in-person art therapy. 


Research shows that art therapy has many potential benefits for improving mental health and overall well-being. It may be the most effective when combined with talk therapy such as CBT, which is why it is typically recommended as a complementary therapy rather than a stand-alone intervention. Participating in just 45 minutes of art therapy can significantly reduce stress levels, making it an effective non-pharmaceutical way to relieve mental distress. Accessing art therapy online may reduce many some of the barriers that can make it difficult to seek care, such as time constraints, financial concerns, or a lack of nearby providers. Online therapy provides many of the same benefits as in-person therapy and can be an effective means of finding the right support.
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