Art Therapy 101: Sorting Facts from Myths
Art therapy combines active art-making, the creative process and applied psychological theory within a psychotherapeutic relationship. There are a multitude of ways to communicate, and especially when we are struggling, facing a challenge or even a health crisis, our own words or language may fail us. During these times, an art therapist can help clients express themselves in ways beyond words or language. We are Masters-level clinicians (or higher) trained in art and therapeutic techniques that serve diverse communities in different settings, from medical institutions and wellness centers, to schools and independent practices.
Every day, art therapists work with children who are experiencing behavioral challenges such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, or are hospitalized due to a catastrophic illness. We also assist people with health challenges; individuals who have been victims of violence or other trauma—including our military service members and student survivors of mass shootings; older adults who are struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease; and anyone that needs help coping with life’s challenges.
Here are three common misconceptions about art therapy, and the facts about our profession. If you or a family member would benefit from art therapy, please use the American Art Therapy Association’s Locator to find a professional Art Therapist near you.
Myth #1: Art therapy is arts and crafts.
People frequently confuse general art-making and crafts, or even a coloring book, with art therapy. These misunderstandings come from lack of common knowledge about the difference as well as non-art therapists without the necessary training calling what they do “art therapy.” Art therapy is a mental health profession that requires a graduate degree for entry into the field. Many art therapists continue their education to become board certified, which requires more than a thousand hours of clinical experience. Additionally, many states have laws creating distinct art therapy licenses or specific regulations under which art therapists practice.
Fact: Art therapy is so much more than making art. It is a mental health profession.
Art therapy is more than just making art. Although the act of creation can be healing in itself, art therapy takes concepts from psychology and counseling and expands on them, forming a unique field of mental health treatment in itself.
Most importantly, training in art therapy is needed to understand how to work with art materials within mental health treatment. Along with education in psychotherapy, art therapists are trained to have a clear understanding of what materials work best in treating specific diagnoses and issues, and which materials and directives are most appropriate to achieve specific goals.
Myth #2: I need to have specific art experience to benefit from art therapy.
You don't need to have any prior art experience to seek the services of an art therapist! The art therapist may consult with you prior to the session to see what materials you have experience using and may also do an assessment, as some materials are more appropriate for specific diagnoses or goals. Art therapists use a large range of materials in the creation of art, ranging from pencils, markers, or paints, to collage, found objects, clay and sculpture.
Fact: The art therapist works with the individual to find what art materials best suit their needs and goals.
Art therapy combines the act of creation, the use of a personal language of expression, and narration of process and content, with directive goals toward healing. As a field, it has its own diverse approaches and practices. Art therapists can work with you in directive sessions, where art is created with content and process in mind. Or they may work with you in non-directive sessions, where art is created spontaneously and then examined and processed with you as the client. They can also integrate art therapy approaches with verbal or behavioral approaches to enhance those modalities.
Myth #3: Art therapy is just for kids.
While art therapists have many directives to choose from, there are specific protocols that are most effective with people of specific ages. In fact, it is used with all ages, genders, and races. For example, research has found that art therapy, while not a cure for dementia or Alzheimer’s Disease, can help stimulate the brains of older patients experiencing cognitive decline, and help them communicate in a non-verbal way. Similarly, art therapy is extremely effective with children if spoken language is an inhibitor. Using metaphor or storytelling with children in art therapy helps children see issues much better than just talk therapy alone.
Art making is a visual-spatial activity that helps heal your brain from trauma and stress. Everyone can benefit. We all have our own art language too, unique to each of us. Developing their own art language helps the participant gain greater insight into themselves, builds self-esteem through the therapeutic process, and builds rapport with the therapist earlier in the process. Art made without the inhibition that could happen with verbal communication brings one closer to dealing with true issues.
Fact: Art therapy fosters relationships and provides a way to communicate beyond just talk.
As an art therapist, I have had so many “aha” moments with my own clients. I suppose one of the best was working with a father and his adolescent children on improving their relationship after a divorce. I used large scale sculpture with them to help them build trust, and work together. As they dismantled their sculpture, they began to open up and discuss the difficult issues they were experiencing at the time. I got to watch a father get closer to his teenage daughters despite the conflicts pulling the rest of the family apart. I have continued to use large scale sculptural work with families since.
Carol Olson, LPC, ATR-BC, CSAC, is a board certified art therapist and licensed professional counselor who has been practicing in the area of sexual violence and abuse since 1994. She currently works privately with clients at this time, generally in family therapy. For over thirteen years she worked in trauma through sexual and domestic violence agencies. She was formerly the Executive Director of the Rappahannock Council Against Sexual Assault, in executive leadership at a state coalition and a national advocacy and treatment agency and was most recently Executive Director of James House Prevention and Intervention Services. In tandem with administrative and clinical work, Carol lectures extensively on trauma and art therapy.
Her degrees are: BS in Psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University, MA in Art Therapy from George Washington University, and MA in Counseling from Liberty University. She has done additional post graduate studies in art therapy, gender studies, addiction and counseling.