Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that I’ve always been interested in, because it isn’t talked about too much at university or in clinical psychology books. Therefore, I feel that art therapy is shrouded in myth and mystery, so psychology students and professionals aren’t exactly sure what art therapy is. Let alone how art therapy works to improve someone’s mental health. In this clinical psychology podcast episode, we’ll explore what is art therapy, how does art therapy work and so much more. If you’re interested in mental health, clinical psychology and psychotherapy then you’ll love today’s episode.
This episode has been sponsored by Abnormal Psychology: The Causes and Treatments For Depression, Anxiety and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.
What Is Art Therapy?
Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses creative techniques to help people express themselves and examine the emotional and psychological undertones of their art. Some of the artistic techniques include painting, colouring, sculpturing and collaging. Then the trained art therapist helps the client to interpret the metaphor, symbols and nonverbal messages in their artwork. As a result, this helps the client to get a better understanding of their feelings and behaviour so they can move on to resolving deeper mental health difficulties and their causes.
Personally, I definitely have to admit that I am a little sceptical of this already because this sounds very subjective, and I think this might be great for some people. For example, people who struggle verbally or really, really like art. Yet for other people, this won’t be fun or very good for them, in terms of using art as a medium of communication. For instance, I like art to some extent but not enough to want to use it as a therapy medium. In that case, I personally prefer talking therapies, which this involves to some extent.
And my opinion is supported by the literature because research into art therapy is mixed at best. Since some studies have found that art therapy can be effective for different people, but other studies have found little benefit to the mental health of clients (Maujean et al., 2014; Patterson et al., 2011; Schouten et al., 2015; Slayton et al., 2010; Van Lith, 2016). So this is not the most empirically supported type of therapy to say the least.
When Is Art Therapy Used?
Interestingly, art therapy can be applied to a very wide range of settings and it can be useful for a range of mental health conditions. Such as, art therapy is useful for a therapist working with couples, groups and individuals as well as it doesn’t matter if this happens in a wellness centre, private counselling, hospitals, senior centres or other community settings. Art therapy can be used in all of these settings. Which is brilliant and helps to make this therapy an accessible option for a lot of people.
In addition, because I am terrible at art (and I have no desire to get better), it’s good to know that a client doesn’t need any artistic talent for the therapy to be successful. Since art therapy isn’t about the end result of the artwork, it’s all about finding the associations between the client’s inner life and the creative choices they make during the creation process.
That’s why art therapy can effectively be a springboard for clients to remember old memories, tell stories that could reveal more about their past and even their beliefs in their unconscious mind.
Moreover, when it comes to the list of mental health conditions, art therapy is useful for you’ll see it covers almost all the main types. For example, depression, anxiety, stress, trauma and grief. Yet it also covers emotional exploration, self-esteem problems, personality disorders as well as physical disabilities and illnesses a client might have.
What To Expect In Art Therapy?
I know you’re all mainly psychology students and professionals so you might find it strange that I’m including a section on what to expect in art therapy from a client’s perspective. Yet I’m doing this because if we understand what our clients go through then this can help us with empathy towards our clients. As well as there is a chance you might listen to this episode today and remember it in the future if you’re working with a client and your current therapy isn’t really working. And you believe they might benefit from art therapy instead, it’s a possibility.
And learning never hurts.
Therefore, the first session of art therapy will be very similar to basically every other form of psychotherapy. A client will be meeting with the therapist and talking about why you want psychological help and they will learn what this therapist has to offer them. Then the client and the art therapist will work together to create a treatment plan that involves creating some artwork.
Afterwards, the client will start creating and during this process, there will be times when the therapist observes how you work without judging or interfering.
Next, when the client has finished their artwork, or at times when the client is still working on it, the therapist will ask questions about how they felt about the artistic process, what was easy or difficult about the artwork and any thoughts or memories the client has about the artwork during the creation process.
Also, it is very common for therapists to ask clients about their experiences and feelings before they provide any observations.
Finally, using this information, the art therapist will use a wide range of creative and innovative interventions that are tailored to each client to help them. For example, an art therapist might guide clients to build clay structures of a family member, engage in free association about different pieces of artwork, or just tell a story through a photo collage.
I suppose that is the nice thing about art therapy is that it gives the therapist a lot of freedom to help their client. Since Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and the vast majority of therapies I’ve come across are a lot more manualised than art therapy. And most of the time that is brilliant but it does restrict therapists to what they can do with their clients, to some extent at least.
How Does Art Therapy Work?
To wrap up this clinical psychology episode, let’s look at how art therapy works to improve people’s mental health.
Therefore, art therapy is based on the idea that therapeutic value can be found in artistic self-expression for people who want to heal or understand themselves or their behaviours at a deeper level.
In addition, according to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapists are trained to understand the roles that various art media, texture and colour can play in the therapy process as well as how these tools can help clients reveal their feelings, thoughts and psychological dispositions.
As a result, art therapy combines psychological therapy and some kind of visual art media into a specific, standalone therapy but it is used at times in other psychotherapies too. In other words, art therapy is another example of a therapy module that can picked up and combined with other modules depending on what the therapist needs. Similar to how some therapists combine systemic and cognitive-behavioural approaches depending on what’s best for their clients.
Moreover, research shows there are five benefits to art therapy and these further help to explain how the therapy works. Firstly, it helps to improve a client’s insight and comprehension as it allows them to verbalise their experiences and emotions.
Secondly, art therapy improves emotion and impulse regulation because it improves a client’s ability to regulate and control emotions.
Thirdly, art therapy is useful for behaviour change because clients learn to change their behavioural responses towards other people and themselves. This could be a result of the self-directed nature of the creative process.
Penultimately, art therapy benefits a client’s personal integration because art helps to improve their self-image and their identity.
Finally, art helps to improve a client’s perception as well as self-perception because it helps people to focus on the present moment, identify and connect with their emotions and their body awareness.
And personally, I know I’ve mentioned this point a few times before on the podcast but when you really start thinking about psychotherapies as a whole. You really do start to see the commonalities between them. For example, art therapy helps behaviour change, well isn’t any form of behaviour change basically behavioural activation which comes from the behavioural approach? Also, art therapy helps clients to focus on the present moment, could that have come from mindfulness-based approaches which is in turn sort of connected to CBT? As well as art therapy helping emotion and impulse regulation, isn’t that basically the premise of most psychotherapies?
And I don’t know say this to discredit any psychotherapy because if it is evidence-based and if it works to improve people’s lives, then I have no issue at all with it. I just think it’s funny to think about how connected all these different forms are.
Clinical Psychology Conclusion
Whilst I would never want to be trained in art therapy because I am just not sold on its effectiveness and art has no interest for me, I think it is interesting. As well as the entire point of these therapy-based podcast episodes is to help us learn about other forms and concepts from different therapies. Therefore, if you ever hear of a concept or idea from a “new” (to you at least) form of therapy then you can research, get trained in it and maybe use it in your current or future clinical psychology work.
It is all about expanding our psychology knowledge.
So as a reminder art therapy uses creative techniques to help people express themselves and examine the emotional and psychological undertones of their art. Then the client interprets the metaphor, symbols and nonverbal messages in their artwork. To get a better understanding of their feelings and behaviour so they can move on to resolving deeper mental health difficulties and their causes.
And art therapy gives us some more tools and ideas to use in our current or future clinical work and that’s great. Art therapy is interesting, a little quirky and I think it could be useful in the right situation.
And as long as it improves lives, decreases psychological distress and helps people, then art therapy is hardly a bad idea.
If you want to learn more, please check out:
Abnormal Psychology: The Causes and Treatments For Depression, Anxiety and More. Available from all major eBook retailers and you can order the paperback and hardback copies from Amazon, your local bookstore and local library, if you request it. Also available as an AI-narrated audiobook from selected audiobook platforms and library systems. For example, Kobo, Spotify, Barnes and Noble, Google Play, Overdrive, Baker and Taylor and Bibliotheca.
Have a great day.
Clinical Psychology References
American Art Association website.
American Art Therapy Association Masters Education Standards June 30, 2007.
Mathew Chiang, William Bernard Reid-Varley, Xiaoduo Fan. Creative art therapy for mental illness: Psychiatry Research. May 2019; 275:129-136.
Maujean, A., Pepping, C. A., & Kendall, E. (2014). A systematic review of randomized controlled studies of art therapy. Art therapy, 31(1), 37-44.
Moon, B. L., & Nolan, E. G. (2019). Ethical issues in art therapy. Charles C Thomas Publisher.
Patterson, S., Crawford, M. J., Ainsworth, E., & Waller, D. (2011). Art therapy for people diagnosed with schizophrenia: Therapists’ views about what changes, how and for whom. International Journal of Art Therapy, 16(2), 70-80.
Schouten, K. A., de Niet, G. J., Knipscheer, J. W., Kleber, R. J., & Hutschemaekers, G. J. (2015). The effectiveness of art therapy in the treatment of traumatized adults: A systematic review on art therapy and trauma. Trauma, violence, & abuse, 16(2), 220-228.
Slayton SC, D’Archer J, Kaplan F. Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: a review of findings. Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association. 22 April 2011; 27(3): 108-118.
Slayton, S. C., D'Archer, J., & Kaplan, F. (2010). Outcome studies on the efficacy of art therapy: A review of findings. Art therapy, 27(3), 108-118.
Suzanne Haeyen, Susan van Hooren, William van der Veld, Giel Hutschemaekers. Efficacy of Art Therapy in Individuals With Personality Disorders Cluster B/C: A Randomized Controlled Trial: Journal of Personality Disorders. August 2018; 32(4):527-542.
Van Lith, T. (2016). Art therapy in mental health: A systematic review of approaches and practices. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 47, 9-22.
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