What is an art therapist, and how can they help?

Updated January 22, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning:  Please be advised, the below article exploring what an art therapist does might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Free support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Art therapists often use creative and counseling techniques to treat various mental health disorders, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. They usually work with clients who live with a mental health disorder, need help in coping with daily stressors, and want to achieve a higher level of personal fulfillment through the healthy medium of creative self-expression. Board-certified art therapists often encourage their clients to express themselves through art-making within a variety of mediums and then interpreting the art they create. This form of counseling can be completed in person or online. 

AGUSTÍN FARIAS
Learn to heal through creative expression

The evolution of art therapy

During the 1940s, art therapy began to 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 recovering in a tuberculosis sanitorium. Labor statistics and the warring state of the world are thought to have contributed to mental health disorders running rampant at the time. Hill is believed to have been the first to coin the term "art therapy" in his book titled Art Versus Illness.

Edward Adamson built on Hill's work, using it in mental health hospitals. Adamson often encouraged patients to create art for self-expression, not necessarily to be interpreted by therapists, but for personal growth and benefit. 

Psychologist Margaret Naumburg was one of the first U.S. pioneers in art therapy. Naumburg often encouraged her patients to use free association to release their unconscious thoughts and feelings, which she believed were representative of symbolic speech. Her patients frequently interpreted and analyzed their results.

Dr. Edith Kramer was another U.S. pioneer in this kind of treatment. Austrian-born Kramer founded the first program at New York University in 1944.

The greatest time of growth for art therapy is often thought to have occurred during the mid-1950s when it gradually became accepted as a beneficial clinical discipline that could be effective for all types of growth in children. Today, expressive arts therapy can be an important tool for assessing and treating people of all ages, including older adults, and can even be effectively used within families.

What to look for in an art therapist

By having a better understanding of what's required to be an art therapist and provide services, it may be easier to evaluate whether this method would be a good fit for your needs. A registered art therapist is generally a mental health professional and an artist, but the focus of their education and graduate degree is almost always on mental health. 

The minimum education level to become an art therapist is typically a master's degree in art therapy from American Art Therapy Association (AATA)-accredited programs with credentials through the Art Therapy Credentials Board. These programs typically include content areas like psychopathology, counseling theory, ethical and legal issues, and more. Depending on where they practice, the art therapy application may also require state licenses, AATA certification, or both, and the therapist must abide by all ethical standards set by the AATA. For more information on credentialled programs and required professional credentials, the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs provides in-depth details regarding accreditation and credentialled, graduate level art therapy programs.   

Art therapists work to manage behavior and mental health conditions and increase self-esteem through artistic self-expression. It's usually not necessary for art therapists to be gifted artists in order to have a successful counseling practice. However, helping and healing others through art therapy normally requires art therapists to have a foundational understanding of visual art and the arts in general. You should expect your art therapist to practice with various types of art media, such as painting, drawing, sculpture, pottery-making, and other art forms. They may even have studied a particular art medium or related field in their undergraduate studies. 

The practice of art therapy usually requires education in human development and counseling theory, and a student will receive training in both art and therapeutic techniques. Art therapists should generally have training in an entry-level practice or in different treatment settings to successfully guide their patients through the creative process and educate them on how it works to improve well-being.

Where can I find a certified art therapist?

Art therapists may work in many different therapeutic and community settings. They may have a non-public practice or be a part of a larger system. Here are several of the most common settings for treatment from a credentialed art therapist: 

  • Medical and psychiatric hospitals and clinics
  • Outpatient treatment facilities, including colleges and universities
  • Shelters
  • Correctional institutions
  • Nursing homes and assisted living communities
  • Halfway houses
  • Residential facilities
  • Rehabilitation care units
  • Wellness centers
  • Forensic institutions
  • Clinical research facilities
  • Detention centers
  • Crisis centers
  • The client’s personal residence

What do sessions with art therapists look like?

Art therapists sometimes work alone in independent practices, but mental health disorders can be complex to treat. For this reason, art therapists more commonly work as part of a multi-disciplinary team that may include a combination of doctors, nurses, rehabilitation staff, social workers, and teachers. 

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Just as it can be important to understand what an art therapist does, it can also be important to know what they don't do in their job. An art therapist usually doesn't teach art and doesn't critique the client's art. 

Using a specific project, an art therapist typically guides clients to discover underlying messages within their art. Therapists may then combine the results with psychotherapeutic counseling techniques to foster self-awareness, build coping skills, process information, improve relationships, resolve conflicts, and promote personal development. Art therapy for older adults, to be specific, is often successful in treating complex disorders when combined with other treatment modalities.

How and why does art therapy work?

Typically, art therapy works in two distinct ways. Art therapists may use it as a way for patients to express themselves freely, much like Hill and Adamson did in the 1940s. Art therapists may guide the activities, but they normally don't critique the client's work or attempt to analyze it. It can merely be a way for clients to turn their thoughts and emotions into an art form.

The second way that this counseling can prove 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 may help people develop skills that increase their cognitive ability, increase awareness of themselves and their interactions with others, and use art as therapy and a coping mechanism.

There may be an infinite number of ideas for art therapy projects. When interviewing a potential therapist, you might ask for some examples of their favorite projects and why they think they can be helpful.

How do I know if one can help?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, it can be useful to pursue art therapy as a form of psychotherapy for those who experience trauma or illness, have difficulty coping with the challenges of daily life, and desire a sense of personal fulfillment.

It can be especially helpful for the following:

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

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

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Learn to heal through creative expression

Online art therapy

You may find qualified art therapists with specialized education within your own community. You can also find online art therapists who practice virtually. As this study shows, art therapy delivered online can be effective in improving mental health. Online therapy may be more available for those in remote areas or those who do not have art therapists in their local area. Attending therapy from the comfort of home may also remove some of the anxiety that can come from connecting with a therapist in person.

Takeaway

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 countless illnesses and disorders. It’s one of the few treatment modalities that can be successfully used with a wide variety of ages, including very young children, adolescents, adults, and senior citizens coping with the many challenges of daily life.

Art therapy practitioners may treat a range of people in their practice, from those who desire a higher quality of life to those with complex psychological challenges. Art therapy can work well as a stand-alone therapy and as a component of other physical and mental health treatment programs, and it can be completed in person or online.

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