What's An Art Therapist?

Updated October 18, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team
You may be wondering what an art therapist does. Art therapy has evolved from the earliest cave paintings and petroglyphs, when people began to use art as a means of self-expression to communicate thoughts and ideas. Over time, art has evolved in many ways. Individuals in various parts of the world eventually discovered that they could use art to successfully uncover the mask of hidden thoughts and emotions, which could be used to regain a sense of wellness.
How Is It Possible That Art Can Release Your Inner Expressions?
Soon, art and therapy collided in a positive way that evolved as a treatment modality for a variety of therapeutic needs. Today, art therapists work in health and community settings to treat a host of mental health disorders. It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to be mentally unwell to benefit from art therapy. Art therapists often work with clients who just need a little help in dealing with daily stressors and those who desire to achieve a higher level of personal fulfillment.

The Evolution Of Art Therapy Over Time

The earliest paintings and rock carvings that have been found often depict how people in past civilizations lived, worked, and worshipped. Art continues to be a healthy form of self-expression today.
During the 1940s, art therapy began to rise and develop as a therapeutic discipline in Europe and the United States. Adrian Hill, a British World War I veteran, discovered art therapy by accident as he spent many days drawing while he was convalescing in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Labor statistics and the warring state of the world were causing mental health disorders to run rampant at the time. Hill was the first to coin the term "art therapy" in his book entitled Art Versus Illness.
Edward Adamson built on Hill's work, using it in mental health hospitals. Adamson encouraged patients to create art for self-expression, which wasn't interpreted by clinicians. 
Psychologist Margaret Naumburg was one of the first U.S. pioneers in art therapy. Naumburg encouraged her patients to use free association to release their unconscious thoughts and feelings, which she believed were representative of symbolic speech. Her patients interpreted and analyzed their results.
Dr. Edith Kramer was another U.S. pioneer in art therapy. Austrian-born Kramer founded the first art therapist program at New York University in 1944.
The greatest time of growth for art therapy occurred during the mid-1950s, where it gradually became accepted as a beneficial clinical discipline effective for all types of growth in children. Today, art therapy is important as a tool for assessing and treating children of all ages and can even be effectively used with their family.

What Should I Look For In A Good Art Therapist?

By having a better understanding of what's required to be an art therapist, it's easier to evaluate whether an art therapist may work for you.

An art therapist is first a mental health professional before they are an artist. Qualified art therapists will have many skills and abilities that transcend the therapeutic and art arenas.

With regard to education, the minimum education level for an art therapist is a master's degree in art therapy from an American Art Therapy Association (AATA)-accredited program. Depending on where they practice, the art therapist may also be required to obtain state licenses, AATA certification, or both and abide by all ethical standards set by the AATA..
The practice of art therapy requires education in human development, counseling theory, therapeutic techniques, and human development. On a personal level, an art therapist must be an emotionally stable individual who is naturally empathetic and sensitive to the needs of others one who has a strong grasp of the creative process as it pertains to mental health.
It's not necessary for art therapists to be gifted artists on their own accord. Helping and healing others using art therapy requires art therapists to have a foundational understanding of visual art. You should expect your art therapist to have practice with various art mediums such as painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery-making, and other art forms. Art therapists will have the training to successfully explain to you how they guide their clients through the creative process and how it works to improve well-being.

Where Can I Find A Therapist To Help Me With My Art Therapy Practice?

Art therapists work in many different therapeutic and community settings. Here are 15 of the most common settings for art therapy treatment:
  1. Medical and psychiatric hospitals and clinics
  2. Outpatient treatment facilities
  3. Outpatient treatment facilities, including colleges and universities
  4. Shelters
  5. Correctional institutions
  6. Nursing homes and assisted living communities
  7. Halfway houses
  8. Residential facilities
  9. Private practice
  10. Rehabilitation care units
  11. Wellness centers
  12. Forensic institutions
  13. Clinical research facilities
  14. Detention centers
  15. Crisis centers
Art therapists work anywhere there is a need, including at an individual's home.

What Do These Specially Trained Therapists Actually Do In Session?

Art therapists sometimes work alone. Mental health disorders are often quite complex and difficult to treat successfully and with long-term positive results. For this reason, art therapists more commonly work as part of a multi-disciplinarily team that may include some combination of doctors, nurses, rehabilitation staff, social workers, and teachers.
Just as it's important to understand what an art therapist does, it's important to know what they don't do in their job.. An art therapist doesn't teach art and doesn't critique the patient's art.
Using some type of art therapy project, an art therapist guides patients to discover underlying messages within their art. Therapists then combine the results with psychotherapeutic counseling techniques to foster self-awareness, build coping skills, process information, improve relationships, and promote personal development.
Art therapy is often successful in treating complex disorders when it's combined with other treatment modalities.

How And Why Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy works in two distinct ways. Art therapists may use it as a way for patients to express themselves freely much as Hill and Adamson did in the 1940s. Art therapists guide the activities, but they don't critique the patient's work or attempt to analyze it. It's merely a way for patients to turn their feelings and emotions into an art form.
The second way that art therapy proves beneficial is for the art therapist to choose an art project that allows the patient to create art while thinking about the process and the medium. This form of art therapy helps people develop the skills that increase their cognitive ability, increase awareness of themselves and their interactions with others, and use art as a coping mechanism.

There is an infinite number of ideas for art therapy projects. When interviewing a therapist as a potential provider, ask for some examples of the art therapists favorite projects and why he or she thinks they're helpful.

How Do I Know If A Therapist Can Help Me Improve The State Of My Mental Health?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is useful as a form of psychotherapy for those who experience trauma or illness, as well as those who desire a sense of personal fulfillment and those who struggle with life's daily problems and frustrations.

Art therapy can be especially helpful for such issues as:

  • Medical impairments
  • Educational difficulties
  • Developmental disorders
  • Psycho-social impairment
  • Trauma-related issues resulting from neglect, abuse, combat, or natural disaster
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Cancer
  • Depression
  • Autism
  • Anti-social personality disorders
  • Dementia
  • Severe stress and anxiety
  • Grief
  • Behavioral disorders in children

In addition to treating individuals, art therapists also work with couples who need help with emotional conflicts and families that need help with healing relationships.

What To Expect From Art Therapy

Art therapy is a treatment program that assists patients in improving or healing their mental and emotional wounds, restore prior functioning, and improve their personal feelings of health and well-being.

How Is It Possible That Art Can Release Your Inner Expressions?

Most people find that art therapy is an enjoyable activity that helps them understand their emotional conflicts, improve their social skills, decrease their anxiety, improve their self-esteem, and manage other disorders, such as substance use disorder.

Final Thoughts On Working With A Qualified Therapist

Art therapy is a type of treatment that can be used alone or in conjunction with other treatments for a wide demographic of people. Art therapy can be applied to a countless array of illnesses and disorders.

Art therapy is one of the only treatment modalities that can be successfully used with very young children, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens dealing with the many challenges of their lives.

Art therapy practitioners treat a range of people in their practice, from those who desire a higher quality of life to those with substance use disorders and complex psychological issues. Art therapy works well as a stand-alone therapy and as a component to other physical and mental health treatment programs.

People can find a host of qualified art therapists, with specialized education, often among a variety of settings that exist right within their own community. Many insurance companies cover art therapy treatments. One of the reasons that art therapy is readily acceptable by insurance is that it has proven benefits without being invasive or harmful, and it doesn't produce negative side effects.

People can also find online art therapists who practice their counseling virtually. Art therapy delivered online has been proven effective. A study of rural Veterans who participated in the Veterans TeleRehabilitation Initiative Creative Arts Therapy showed that online art therapy can be successfully delivered with the arts therapist customizing the therapy as needed.

How BetterHelp Can Support You

BetterHelp’s online licensed therapists and counselors who have knowledge and training in art therapy can help you discover issues that you might otherwise find difficulty articulating. You’ll learn how to “read” your art and use it as a tool to help you start feeling better. You’ll be able to meet with your therapist in the comfort of your home and at a time that works best for you. f your home and at a time that works best for you. some reviews of BetterHelp counselors from people experiencing similar issues.

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