Sunday, August 10, 2008

Art Therapy Helps People Get in Touch With Feelings

At Graylands Psychiatric Hospital in Perth, Australia, patients create art as part of their therapy. The patients, the families and the therapists believe this form of therapy is tremendously beneficial to helping them find stability and improve their mental health.

The therapy helps patients become happier and more content, boosts self-esteem and gives them a purpose. Counselors at the Boston Institute for Arts Therapy (BIAT) use art to help different populations access their feelings. For example, the Institute's Violence Prevention and Conflict Resolution Program has utilized art therapy with populations like pregnant teens from St. Mary's Alternative School. School coordinators feel that the program has helped the women learn constructive options to conflict resolution and to feel good about themselves and their babies.

Several art therapists in the New York metropolitan area work with patients who have breast cancer, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and Leukemia. The therapists see patients in private-practice settings, hospital outpatient centers, nursing homes, hospices and other locations. They used art mediums such as collage, modeling clay, paint, pencils and watercolor.

These three scenarios are examples of ways in which art therapy is being used. Therapists are finding that both mentally ill people and those with special needs and stresses are benefiting from the increasingly popular counseling medium of art therapy.

What Is Art Therapy?

The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as, "a human service profession that utilizes art media, images, the creative art process and patient/client responses to the created products as reflections of an individual's development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns and conflicts. Art therapy practice is based on knowledge of human developmental and psychological theories that are implemented in the full spectrum of models of assessment and treatment including educational, psychodynamic, cognitive, transpersonal and other therapeutic means of reconciling emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, developing social skills, managing behavior, solving problems, reducing anxiety, aiding reality orientation and increasing self-esteem." Art therapists focus on the process of creating art. They do not judge the quality of the finished piece(s).

AATA says that art therapy did not emerge as a distinct profession until the 1930s. At the beginning of the 20th century, psychiatrists became interested in the artwork done by patients and studied it to see if there was a link between the art and the illness of their patients. At the same time, art educators were discovering that the free and spontaneous art expression of children represented both emotional and symbolic communications. Since then, the profession of art therapy has grown into an effective way for counselors to treat many populations.

Benefits of Art Therapy

People from all walks of life profit from art therapy. According to Canadian art therapist Petrea Hansen-Adamidis, Dipl. AT, RCAT, art therapy can help you:

  • express feelings too difficult to talk about
  • increase self-esteem and confidence
  • develop healthy coping skills
  • identify feelings and blocks to emotional expression and growth
  • provide an avenue for communication
  • make verbal expression more accessible

Finding an Art Therapist

If you'd like to experience art therapy, find someone who is a registered art therapist. (In the United States, look for the letters "ATR" or "ATR-BC" after their names.) Art therapists have either a master's degree in art therapy, a master's degree with an emphasis in art therapy or 21 semester units in art therapy with a master's degree in a related field. In addition, they must have completed a minimum of 1,000 direct client contact hours. See for more information on the qualifications you need to become an art therapist.

My Personal Experience

I have experienced art therapy in two group settings. By letting go of my analytical mind and simply creating art, I discovered much about myself. In one exercise, we had to draw a picture that represented our childhood. Although I had always thought I had a fairly happy childhood, I drew a little girl sitting in the corner crying. This helped me think about my childhood in a different way. In another class, we created masks. I put dried flowers in front of the mouth and realized that sometimes I feel like I can't be heard.

Art Therapy Resources

For more information on art therapy, read books such as:

  • The Art Therapy Sourcebook, by Cathy A. Malchiodi
  • Art Is a Way of Knowing, by Pat B. Allen
  • Art as Medicine: Creating a Therapy of the Imagination, by Shaun McNiff
  • Art and Healing: Using Expressive Art to Heal Your Body, Mind and Spirit,
    by Barbara Ganim, et al.
  • The Art of Therapy and the Therapy of Art, by Anna S. Krayn
  • Art Therapy: An Introduction (Basic Principles into Practice Series), by Judith Aron Rubin
  • Creative Transformation: The Healing Power of the Arts, by Penny Lewis
  • Handbook of Art Therapy, by Caroline Case and Tessa Dalley
  • The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts as Healing, by Natalie H. Rogers

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