What Is Art Therapy?

Updated November 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Art therapy can be a helpful form of treatment for various forms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and substance use disorders (formerly known as substance abuse disorders). Many people may find healing and self-awareness through artistic expression such as painting, clay modeling, and even dance in art therapy. This article will describe into what it is, how it works, and how you can get art therapy online.

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Reconnect With Your Creative Side

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. Art therapy 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. You can find an art therapist to connect with in person or through an online therapy platform.

Meaning Of Art Therapy

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), art therapy generally involves using artistic activities in psychotherapy and rehabilitation. Expressive arts therapies can lead to personal fulfillment, emotional reparation, and a sense of transformation.

Art therapists often believe that patients can improve their psychological well-being by expressing emotions and experiences visually. Art therapy works by challenging patients to find alternative ways to communicate. Active art making can be messy and unexpected, and the creative arts process is generally more important than the end product. Patients can apply this mindset outside of sessions, particularly when they lack control over the outcome of a situation.

Art Therapy Vs. Expressive Arts Therapy

Since its development in the 1940s, art therapy has grown in esteem in the therapeutic community. In recent years, more psychologists have used "expressive arts therapy," rather than art therapy, to describe a psychotherapeutic approach that may draw from various art forms, not just visual art. Depending on their training and the interests of their patients, expressive arts therapists may introduce creative techniques including writing, plays, music, dance, and other forms of performative expression. 

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 art 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 art form. If you're looking for a counselor with an exceptionally creative background, you may seek out dance, drama, poetry, or music therapy. It can be beneficial to review each therapist's education and credentials before committing to working with them. Many art therapists may offer brief consultations, during which you can assess their therapeutic approach and determine whether their creative lens and artistic experience align with yours. You can also choose to attend individual or group art therapy sessions. 


Benefits Of Art Therapy

Art therapy work and incorporating creativity into our lives can yield numerous benefits. While many of us may lose sight of the power of art within the human experience, our creative energy can still be well within reach. Sometimes, we may need an art therapist to guide us.  

What is art therapy?

Art therapy may have several mental health benefits, including:

  • Emotional Release: Art therapy can 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 gain artistic talent and 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.

Research has found that artmaking is a generally enjoyable and relaxing outlet for many people. Some patients may view creating art as a more intellectual and challenging exercise. During and outside therapy sessions, people may create art in the form of drawing, poetry, dance, and other artistic techniques to learn more about themselves, uncover new insights, and experience the aforementioned "flow" state that can be difficult to replicate in the bustle of everyday life. 

Benefits Of Art Therapy For Trauma

Art therapy can benefit people with various mental health conditions, but researchers believe it can significantly help people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A 2016 study found that when used in conjunction with cognitive processing therapy (CPT), art therapy effectively improved symptoms among veterans with PTSD. Specifically, the participants reported that after art therapy, they either recovered previously blocked memories, or gained insights and realizations crucial to their healing processes.

As the science of art therapy develops, more patients from diverse populations may be seeking this service to restore their mental health and reconnect with their creative selves.

Reconnect With Your Creative Side

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 of art. This approach can empower patients to uncover new strategies to enhance their mental health and creative practices.

How To Get Trained

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, educational requirements to practice art therapy 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 art therapy clinical internship, in addition to 100 hours of supervised practicum, which usually involves both observation and practice for course credit. 

Art therapy students may also take courses in studio art, such as drawing, painting, clay sculpting, and other art forms, depending on their interests. In most programs, art therapists are trained in both psychological treatments and artistic methods.

Education And Certification In Art Therapy

If you're interested in pursuing art therapy, the 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 art 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 can also help prospective therapists identify graduate-level programs in this growing field of psychotherapy.

Settings That Include This Treatment

Art therapists may work in various settings with people of all ages and with varied mental health goals. Art therapy 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

Some art therapists may be self-employed and manage their own marketing and clients. Art therapy can allow people to choose their hours and maintain a successful, creative, and rewarding career.

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 indicates that virtual art therapy can be an effective tool for patients and professionals. Online therapy platforms such as BetterHelp are a great place to start searching for an online art therapist. 


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 can improve self-esteem, stress relief, emotional release, and self-exploration. You can participate in art therapy in person or online.

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