What is Art Therapy?
| Where is Art Therapy Used?
| How It Might Work
Children and adults who have been exposed to unspeakable trauma, as well as those suffering from depression, anxiety, or other serious mental or physical illnesses, can reap enormous benefits from the healing process of art therapy—a therapy which uses paint and paper, glue and scissors, images and colors to symbolically express the depth and intensity of emotional pain. Art therapy can be a way for people with physical or emotional pain to heal.
What is Art Therapy?
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as "a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem, self-awareness, and achieve insight."
Although human beings have used art as a mode of expression for thousands of years, art therapy was not recognized as a distinct profession until the 1940s. Psychiatrists began to become interested in the artwork created by patients with mental illness. At the same time, educators were also paying attention to children's artwork as it reflected their developmental, emotional, and cognitive growth. Within a few decades, hospitals and rehabilitation centers were incorporating art therapy with their traditional psychotherapy programs.
Special techniques are often particularly useful in helping patients express their feelings, develop social skills, solve problems, reduce anxiety or resolve emotional conflicts. In the unstructured approach, patients might select from a variety of materials and media (paint, pastels, clay) and use them however they choose, allowing unconscious material to rise to the surface. Then the therapist might ask the client to draw a family picture, which can help elicit complex family dynamics such as unhealthy patterns of relating or poor communication skills.
Groups of people struggling with other issues, such as cancer survivors, might work together to create a collage or mural that can then be used to stimulate discussion of coping strategies.
Ava Charney-Danysh, ATR-BC, finds art therapy very useful in her work with children and adults who have eating disorders. "Obsessions with food and weight are often attempts to cope with unresolved emotional issues such as depression, rage, powerlessness and loss," she explains. "Art therapy is a special tool that can help provide access to those hidden feelings that contain the key to our struggles."
New York City art therapist Sandy Izhakoff works with neurologically impaired adults in nursing homes and in senior citizen centers. She uses art therapy techniques such as free-drawing, mask-making and finger-painting to help even nonverbal patients perform
life review, express regrets, resolve unresolved losses, and come to terms with issues such as aging, grief and fear of death.
Where is Art Therapy Used?
According to the AATA, art therapy is based on knowledge of human developmental and psychological theories and is an effective treatment for people with developmental, medical, educational, social, or psychological problems. Art therapists must possess a minimum of a master's degree and undergo a supervised practicum and postgraduate internship. They practice in a variety of settings, including:
- Community mental health centers and psychiatric clinics
- Hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, and hospices
- Correctional and forensic facilities
- Nursing homes and senior centers
- Schools and early intervention programs
- Disaster relief centers and homeless shelters
- Drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs
Art therapists can practice solo or may be part of a treatment team that includes physicians, psychologists, nurses, social workers, counselors, and teachers. Art therapy, done in individual or group sessions, can be used with patients of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds who have any one of a number of physical and emotional disorders, including:
- Schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illnesses
- Post-traumatic stress disorder caused by natural disasters, upsetting events, or abuse
- Eating disorders
- Substance abuse
- Chronic pain, medical problems, or terminal illness
- Family issues
"Beginning with scribbles and lines, children express their feelings and needs through art even before verbal language is learned," says Noah Hass-Cohen, MA, ATR-BC, MFCC, of the Los Angeles Institute for Art Therapy. "Art therapy provides a nonthreatening place to release feelings and pent up emotions and may be especially useful for children and adolescents in times of family and individual crisis and/or change."
How It Might Work
The theory behind art therapy is based partially on the fact that creativity and healing may come from the same place.
"At the deepest level, the creative process and the healing process arise from a single source," says Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, assistant clinical professor of family medicine at the University of California at San Francisco School of Medicine.
According to the experts, art therapy is not merely "arts and crafts," or purely recreational. It is multi-sensory and teaches people to use objects purposefully and to communicate their pain with the outside world.
Cathy A. Malchiodi.
The Art Therapy Sourcebook.
History and background. American Art Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanarttherapyassociation.org/aata-history-background.html. Updated 2010. Accessed August 9, 2011.
Who are art therapists? American Art Therapy Association website. Available at: http://www.americanarttherapyassociation.org/upload/whoarearttherapists2009.pdf. Accessed August 9, 2011.
Last reviewed August 2011 by Brian Randall, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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