By Cindy Coloma
Jeanie stared at the blank piece of paper and grimaced. Others in the room were already hard at work on their drawings. Gwen, the group leader, had asked them to draw an image that represented how they were feeling.
Jeanie’s heart pounded as she thought about trying to explain everything she had been through lately. She could never quite seem to find the words to explain what was going on in her heart and mind. Grabbing a red pencil, she began to draw circles and color them in. That felt right.
Picking up a black pencil, she began drawing sharp lines, back and forth, first light and then darker. She didn’t know what she was drawing, but she just kept picking up different colors: a triangle of yellow there, a blue lightning bolt below it. An hour later she was finished. The colors and shapes were bright and intense, sometimes orderly and sometimes chaotic.
Gwen came over and stared at the picture and nodded, patting her shoulder. It was good. Jeanie exhaled and closed her eyes, surprised at how good it felt to see her emotions on paper. The rest of the class was leaving, but Gwen said she could stay a little while longer if she needed to. Jeanie reached for another blank piece of paper and a green pencil this time, allowing her feelings to guide her.
As professionals seek creative treatments for mental health and substance abuse disorders, many are looking at art therapy as a way to gain insight and also help their clients process and address their symptoms.
What Is Art Therapy?
The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as an “integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.”1
The Art Therapy Credentials Board, which manages the credentialing and testing process of art therapists, states that art therapy uses art media, the creative process and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process.2
How Can Art Therapy Help?
The descriptions of art therapy speak toward its general processes and benefits, but how can it actually aid those who are dealing with mental health or substance abuse disorders?
While very little scientific research has been done on art therapy and its effectiveness in the treatment of mental health and addiction disorders, the testimonials abound by practitioners, family members and even patients themselves of how art therapy has helped in the treatment of such disorders.
In 2015, researchers set out to study if and how art therapy affects the recovery process of adults with personality disorders, and their findings were encouraging.
They found that some benefits of art therapy may include:
- Improved perception: Converting emotions in a visual way may help identify and make connections between emotion and body awareness for patients, which is a strong starting point in many therapeutic approaches.
- Integration: Many patients who were unable to describe conflicting and strong emotions verbally found they could bring their feelings together in one image with art therapy.
- Regulating emotions and impulses: With the guidance of a trained therapist, patients can learn through creative expression to regulate their emotional instincts and responses, creating opportunities for confidence and self-control.
- Behavior adjustment: Art therapy can provide an opportunity to explore behavior and choices in a safe way, giving patients the opportunity to practice alternative responses and behavior.
- Personal insight: Many patients are able to work through their own internal voices while working on their art. As they see their thoughts and feelings communicated through their art, they may be able to gain important understanding of their own condition with the help of a therapist.3
Who Can Benefit from Art Therapy?
- Children: Many times children who have experienced trauma, grief or mental health disorders don’t have the ability to verbally express their thoughts or emotions completely. Art therapy allows children to explore their challenges and communicate in a creative way. It also allows kids to explore and cope with their feelings in a safe environment.4
- Teens: Teens who experience psychological stress, mental illness disorders or co-occurring disorders are often difficult to connect with when it comes to therapeutic treatment. Often, a teen’s resistance to authority can add to the challenge. Art therapy appeals to their creativity and is a form of non-threatening communication. A teen’s art can give a trained therapist insight into their unique perspectives and needs.5
- Adults: Art therapy appears to be beneficial for almost anyone. Most of us can use help processing our emotions and stress from time to time, and art therapy is a great avenue to maintain health. While there are skeptics, some experts are convinced art therapy, when provided by a trained a licensed therapist, can help a great deal with mental illness disorders and even co-occurring substance abuse disorders. However, the rising popularity of adult coloring books are not considered art therapy. While therapeutic and relaxing, coloring books cannot take the place of a trained, certified and/or licensed professional who has been trained in art therapy.6
For more information about art therapy or other therapeutic approaches for you or a loved one, or to connect with a trained art therapist, please call us, and we will be happy to walk you through the process.
1 “About Art Therapy.” American Art Therapy Association, Accessed February 12, 2018.
2 “FAQs” Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc., Accessed February 12, 2018.
3 Malchiodi, Cathy. “Why Art Therapy Works.” Psychology Today, August 30, 2016.
4 Frank, Priscilla. “How Art Therapy Can Help Children Facing Mental and Emotional Challenges.” HuffPost, May 7, 2015.
5 Riley, Shirley. “Art Therapy With Adolescents.” Western Journal of Medicine, July 2001.
6 Davis, Justin. “Who Can Benefit From Art Therapy?” Psychreg, September 28, 2016.