Art therapy combines the process of art making (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art media) with methods of psychotherapy to improve and enhance the psychological 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 psychological problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight. Individuals who are referred for art therapy need not have previous experience or skill in art, because art therapy is not primarily concerned with formulating an aesthetic or diagnostic assessment of the people’s images. The overall goal of art therapy is to enable clients to achieve emotional, interpersonal, or cognitive growth through specific art-making experiences.
While visual expression has been used for healing throughout history, it was not until the early 20th century that psychiatrists became interested in the artwork created by their patients with mental illness and in how these patients used art expression as a form of communication. At around the same time, educators discovered that children’s drawings and paintings reflected developmental, emotional, and cognitive growth and that children’s art and play provided a means of evaluating psychological disorders. By the 1940s, art therapy emerged as a distinct discipline, and hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers increasingly began to include art therapy programs along with traditional talk therapies or as “milieu therapies.” Subsequently, the profession of art therapy grew into an effective and important method of assessment and treatment with children, adults, and families as recognition increased that the creative process of art making enhanced recovery, health, and wellness.
As with other forms of psychotherapy, the relationship between the art therapist and the client is a key component of treatment. However, art therapy differs from other forms of psychotherapies because, in addition to talking, art is also used as a form of communication; art also serves as an intervention. In essence, there are several aspects of art therapy that set it apart from other forms of psychotherapy: (1) It helps individuals to externalize feelings and thoughts in a unique and tangible way; (2) it helps individuals to convey feelings or thoughts that may be difficult to verbalize; and (3) it is usually perceived as nonthreatening, neutral, or even as “play,” reducing resistance to treatment.
Art therapy is used to assess and treat anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional problems and disorders; substance abuse and other addictions; family and relationship issues; abuse and domestic violence; social and emotional difficulties related to disability and illness; trauma and loss; physical, cognitive, and neurological problems; and psychosocial difficulties related to medical illness. Art therapy programs are found in a number of settings, including hospitals, clinics, public and community agencies, wellness centers, educational institutions, businesses, and private practices. Methods of art therapy are often combined with other forms of creative arts therapies or expressive therapies such as music, dance and movement, drama, or play therapies as well as numerous forms of psychotherapy such as psychoanalytic, person-centered, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, narrative, and solution-focused approaches.
- Malchiodi, C. (1997). Breaking the silence: Art therapy with children from violent homes (2nd ed). New York: Brunner-Routledge.
- Rubin. J.A. (2001). Approaches to art therapy: Theory and technique (2nd ed). New York: Brunner-Routledge.