“Art therapy is for artists”, I once thought. “It’s about making art and analyzing it. It’s not for everyone”.
Boy, was I wrong. It’s not a black and white field like I assumed. Art Therapy is inclusive. It is widely used with individuals, groups and families of all ages, abilities, and colors of the rainbow.
Art therapy is, in a way, a paradox. It is both extremely old and very young. Humans have been creating art for healing purposes as far back as 40,000 year old cave paintings, yet the recognized profession is still a youngster in the books (about 50ish years old). While there has been increasing awareness of the healing power of art over the years, the specifics have bred confusion. What is the difference between an art therapist and someone providing non-therapeutic art activities (i.e. art teachers, artists-in-residence, and volunteers)? Do you have to be licensed to practice art therapy? Is art therapy just painting and drawing? Despite the fact that art therapy is better known today, it is poorly defined and generally misunderstood as a whole.
Through searching the web and combing text books I have found countless answers to the question, “What is art therapy?” The American Art Therapy Association suggests, “Art therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” Other experts in the field argue that art therapy has transcended beyond the borders of a “mental health profession” to sharing space with allied health and integrative (mind-body) medicine realms. There are emerging studies about art and the brain, information that supports the application of specific art-based approaches in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and reduction in pain and fatigue perception, for example.
Fascinating to think about. Now, the question is “who can benefit from working with an art therapist?” Many people believe (including myself before ever being a client) that the therapy is only for people who have a life-changing disability, when in reality it is beneficial to everyone in their own unique way. Art therapy helps people resolve personal conflicts, reduce negative stress, as well as address many somatically-based conditions (i.e. posttraumatic stress, depression, trauma reactions). It also helps individuals achieve personal insight and improve overall quality of life through creative expression.
Art matters. For me, it’s a wellness practice, a form of self-expression often times just for me. It is how I process my emotions and connect my mind & body. Can you remember the last time you created something; that feeling of self-accomplishment, of designing something visually pleasing to your eye? People are compelled to make art because art has the potential to make life special. It can help facilitate conversation and integration into the community. In many cultures art is used during sacred rituals as a way to make meaning of life. Art (whether it’s painting, drawing, dancing, playing music, etc.) engages the senses. In many cases it can communicate more than words.
So, what does it take to be an art therapist? A Master’s degree is required from an accredited higher education institution to begin entry-level work. The American Art Therapy Association lists the approved schools in the US and abroad on their website (in case you feel like taking a gander). In the US, graduates who meet the requirements set forth by the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB) can apply to become an Art Therapist Registered (ATR) and Board Certified Art Therapist (ATR-BC). When I was researching graduate schools I came across a lotta lotta helpful information, most notably the suggestion to earn a dual Art Therapy/ Counseling degree to increase job prospects. There are plenty of schools out there that advertise degrees solely in Art Therapy, Expressive Arts Therapies and the like, but with a dual degree I can potentially qualify for both art therapy and/or counseling related positions. I’ll have more options.
My love of art and working with children has led me to where I am today. Although I have just begun my journey through Southwestern College’s MA in Art Therapy/ Counseling program I could not be happier with my decision. When my everyday experience at SWC consists of mindfulness practices, deep group discussions, art making activities, and consciousness awareness building it’s hard to imagine studying anywhere else. I have an idea of the population I want to work with one day, in what setting and location, and with which variety of techniques, but they are all subject to change. This year in the program is about looking inward and recognizing, accepting, and re-empowering the different parts of me before I can begin to help others. I look forward to sharing my lessons with you.
Until next time…
(A fun video I found online. Never mind the goofy lab coats)