The Difference between Art as Therapy and Art Psychotherapy

To the outsider, an art activity done by an art teacher, volunteer or aide can look the same as an art activity done by an art therapist. Art can be used as therapy for children, adolescents and adults who can gain much from making art for creative engagement, relaxation and pleasure. Art making is therefore popularly known as a ’therapeutic’ activity. The difference between art as therapy and art psychotherapy (or art therapy) is subtle and happens firstly in the mind of the facilitator.

Art therapy is a professional method of treatment that has its roots in psychoanalysis. Art therapists focus first and foremost on building a therapeutic alliance and trust with individuals so as to engage them at a deeper emotional level. Over time, the art therapist looks for opportunities to help clients identify, express and process emotions that might be hidden or stuck. From a Jungian perspective, it is a form of symbolic language originating from the unconscious which is significant in helping the individual with the integration of the psyche. For these reasons, art therapists are extremely aware of issues on confidentiality and boundaries.

In a group environment, naturally, participants might not feel as safe as when they are relating one-to-one in an individual session. However, the size of the group, mood and tone set by the facilitator does have an impact on how individuals respond. Art therapists are sensitive to structure and choose activities that fit the group process and for an intended purpose. Whereas in an art session, the teaching and focus is usually on the art activity, in a group art therapy session, the intention would always be on the emotional welfare for the individual, whether is to achieve a sense of release or to gain an increased self-awareness, both of which are integral to mental health.

Written by Ms Joanna Tan
Senior Art Therapist
Adelphi Psych Medicine Clinic