What is Art Therapy?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy involves “active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” This therapeutic approach is client-led and involves a three-way relationship between the client , the therapist and the artwork, which is a key unique feature of this approach.

Art therapy improves cognition, fostering of self-esteem and self-awareness while allowing the client to become more insightful about their experiences. The approach strives to allow the patient to cope with conflict while developing personal emotional resilience. The goal of art therapy is to help the patient gain insight, clarity or get “unstuck” from an impasse or feeling that they need to move past something in order to move on productively.

Misconceptions of Art Therapy

First, popular misconception leads people to believe that art therapy is only for children. In fact, art therapy is used for all backgrounds, ages, and therapeutic purposes, and is not only reserved for children, where art therapy often takes the place of verbal language.

Second, to engage in art therapy, one doesn’t need to have any artistic abilities or have an interest or inclination towards art. Art therapy acts as another outlet through which a therapist can help the client access different parts of their psyche through creative and visual approaches.

Third, its important to recognize the role of the art therapist as someone who doesn’t “read” the art or even try to interpret the art to reveal something about the patient. The therapist is a guide to help the patient access parts of their unconscious or subconscious through creative outlets.

Who Benefits Most from Art Therapy?

Art therapy is for people of all ages who are looking to move past a certain event or hoping to find clarity in an aspect of their lives in order to move forward.

For children, the approach of art therapy has been particularly useful for children who are going through trauma such as a family breakdown, or who are survivors of abuse and other traumas. It’s also been shown to be particularly useful in children who have developmental, emotional or behaviour problems.

The approach is useful for adults who are going through major life transitions such as loss (employment, illness, divorce, etc) or those who are living with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), stress, or more serious psychosomatic illnesses. It’s also been applied in family settings with couples who are at an impasse in their relationship, or families who going through palliative or end-of-life care for a family member.

The intention of art therapy is to improve and inform physical, mental and emotional well-being.

The Art Therapist

Art Therapists are highly educated and trained individuals who have dedicated themselves to the practice of art therapy. To become an art therapist, one will undertake rigorous studies through a Masters-level program.

The training for art therapists includes a minimum number of hours of the Masters-level coursework as well as a supervised practicum in a clinical setting reaching into the hundreds of hours. Through these in-class and practical learning experiences, the art therapist comes in contact with important topics like the creative process, psychological development, group therapy, art therapy assessment, and research methods, while learning how to work with diverse patients and patient needs. While the art therapist is studying topics of psychology, they are also undergoing training in various visual art forms such as drawing, painting, sculpture and other creative art forms including dance/movement and drama.

Within the art therapy community of practice, it has been acknowledged that many organizations are using “art therapy” wrongfully to describe activities that aren’t necessarily in line with the definition accepted by accredited therapists and this is why the industry worldwide has adopted regulating frameworks.

In Singapore, the Art Therapy profession is regulated by The Professional Association for Arts Therapy in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore (ANZATA) and it is charged with overseeing the ethical and training standards of the profession in these areas.

What is an Art Therapy Session Like?

Before engaging in any creative activities during art therapy, the art therapist will first take significant time to build a foundation of respect and trust with the patient. This will be important to allow the patient to feel comfortable enough to be able to access the subconscious and unconscious through the art activities to be undertaken.

The art therapy session may take a few different forms. For instance, if the patient enters the session with an idea of what he or she wants to discuss with their therapist, the therapist’s job is to match the patient need with the artistic medium. If the patient enters the session not sure what to discuss, the art therapist will suggest various artistic activities to help the patient access their inner thoughts and psyche through art.

Remember that the role of the art therapist isn’t to “read” the art, but to help the patient recognize their own patterns of thinking, or help them to gain insights into their own lives. To do this, the therapist blends the artistic approach with the verbal approaches used in traditional therapy settings.

Is Art Therapy For You?

Many tend to shy away from the idea of using art to access their feelings, but may be surprised at how well the various forms of art, whether it be visual arts or more performance/movement oriented art, can represent their inner selves.

Art therapy allows art to be the vehicle through which a patient accesses their vulnerability, allowing the therapist in a way to bypass the difficulty of expressing feelings or emotions in words.

If you or your family member has tried different forms of therapy, yet verbal expression proves to be a challenge, as it is for many, art therapy may be a promising option for embracing the therapeutic process.