What Is Art Therapy? Definition & Effectiveness

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated March 28, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Art therapy can be a helpful method of therapy for various forms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders. Many people may find healing expressing themselves with different art mediums such as painting, clay modeling, and even dance in art therapy. This article will describe what it is, how it works, and how you can get art therapy online.

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Whether you're a prospective art therapy patient or considering a career as a credentialed art therapist, this field of psychotherapy can be exciting and deeply fulfilling. It can promote self-expression, self-exploration, emotional release, increased self-esteem, stress relief, and the development of positive coping skills, and it may be beneficial for those who are experiencing intense emotional responses to past trauma. 

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Meaning of art therapy

Art therapy is defined by the American Art Therapy Association as, “a mental health profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” According to the American Psychological Association (APA), it generally involves using artistic activities in psychotherapy and rehabilitation. 

Art therapists often believe that patients can improve their psychological well-being by expressing emotions, feelings, and experiences visually. Active art-making and creative activity can be messy and unexpected, and the creative arts process is generally more important than the end product. 

Art therapy vs. expressive arts therapy

The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) defines expressive arts therapy as combining the visual arts, movement, drama, music, writing, and other creative processes that can foster profound personal growth and community development. In a single session or throughout several meetings, an expressive art therapist works to integrate different processes that can flow into one another, depending on the client's needs and goals.

Within the framework of expressive arts therapy, some counselors may receive more education on a specific form. If you're looking for a counselor with an exceptionally creative background, you may seek out dance, drama, poetry, or music therapy, for example. It is sometimes beneficial to review each therapist's education and professional credentials before committing to working with them. 

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Benefits of art treatment

Art therapy may have several mental health benefits, including:

  • Emotional release: Art therapy is potentially able to provide a healthy outlet to express and work through difficult emotions and to let go of emotions and beliefs that don't serve you.
  • Self-esteem: While the outcome or piece of art isn't necessarily the goal, you can develop renewed confidence as you discover new abilities through the process of creative expression.
  • Self-Exploration: Making art often allows people to explore feelings or themes that may be tricky to express in words.
  • Stress relief: Recent research indicates that art therapy can improve stress and emotional control. When we make art, scientists believe we can achieve a trance-like "flow" state that reduces levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

An average session

During an art therapy session, you might engage in some of the following activities:

  • Making collages
  • Starting a sketchbook
  • Taking and discussing photographs
  • Sculpting
  • Experimenting with textiles

Patients and therapists shouldn't feel limited to "traditional" modes This approach is able to empower patients to uncover new strategies to enhance their mental health and creative practices.

How to get trained as an art therapist

More therapists are seeking additional training to become board-certified in art therapy to meet the demand for creative counseling. The road to becoming an art therapist can vary depending on the artistic focus. Still, at a minimum, professional standards and educational requirements to practice art therapy even in an entry-level practice typically include both a bachelor's and master's degree. 

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy students must take a range of psychological courses and complete at least 600 hours of a supervised clinical internship, in addition to 100 hours of supervised practicum, which usually involves both observation and practice for course credit. 

Students may also take courses in studio art, such as drawing, painting, clay sculpting, and other forms, depending on their interests. In most programs, art therapists are trained in both psychological treatments and artistic methods, so an art class is an action you can take help define those skills.

American Art Therapy Association education and certification

If you're interested in pursuing art therapy as a trained professional, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) offers a convenient list of schools that offer accredited programs. After completing a master's degree in art therapy, most people pursue licensure, a process whose requirements can vary by state, and national credentialing, which will allow these therapists to serve patients in a variety of diverse settings, from independent practices to work with wellness centers. 

The Art Therapy Credentials Board usually administers the following national credentials: 

  • Provisional Registered Art Therapist (ATR-Provisional) 
  • Registered Art Therapist (ATR)
  • Certification (ATR-BC)
  • Art Therapy Certified Supervisor (ATCS)

The AATA provides a helpful overview of art therapy credentials and licensure. Expressive arts therapists usually complete separate but similar training. You may visit the IEATA Education and Training Directory for more information. This resource is potentially beneficial in helping prospective therapists identify graduate-level programs in this growing field of psychotherapy.

Settings that include treatment from art therapists

Art therapists work in various settings with people of all ages, from young children to older adults, and with varied mental health goals. Settings can include:

  • Crisis counseling centers
  • Inpatient mental health clinics
  • Community clinics 
  • Schools (may require additional training for work with children)
  • Hospitals
  • Long-term rehabilitation and care facilities
  • Own practice
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Online therapy

Online art therapy is an increasingly popular option for therapists and patients. Working with a licensed art therapist through a digital platform allows patients to find creative inspiration from the comfort of their homes. After working through the pandemic, many art therapists now have the tools to adapt artmaking to the virtual world.

Whether you prefer video calls to showcase your artwork or phone calls to read a poem, an online therapist can honor your communication preferences and help you integrate creativity into a busy schedule. Research and various peer-reviewed studies have indicated that virtual art therapy is an effective tool for some patients and professionals. Online therapy platforms such as BetterHelp are a great place to start searching for an online art therapist. 

Takeaway

Whether you're interested in approaching art therapy as a client or a therapist, the process can come with many benefits. Experiencing art therapy as a client is one way to potentially improve self-esteem, social skills, stress relief, emotional release, and self-exploration. You can participate in person or online.
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