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Last updated: Jun 23, 2021
4 min read

What is art therapy and how does it help?

steve silvestro

Medically Reviewed by Steve Silvestro, MD

Written by Alison Dalton

Disclaimer

If you have any medical questions or concerns, please talk to your healthcare provider. The articles on Health Guide are underpinned by peer-reviewed research and information drawn from medical societies and governmental agencies. However, they are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Many forms of therapy involve talking to a mental health professional—but it’s not always easy to talk about what’s bothering you. Art therapy sidesteps verbal communication by immersing people in the creative process. Some people can better feel, express, and deal with their thoughts and emotions through art. Learn below about art therapy and if it’s right for you. 

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What is art therapy?

Art therapy combines psychology and art to help people dealing with many different mental and emotional challenges and stressful situations. Art therapists assist people in expressing and coping with their feelings and building greater self-insight (AATA, 2017).

Doing art therapy creates a safe and supportive environment where people can deal with the emotional fallout from traumatic experiences. Art therapy may aid in improving thinking ability and motor skills. It can boost self-esteem, self-awareness, and emotional resilience. Art therapy may help enhance an individual’s social skills, including reducing and resolving conflicts with others (AATA, 2017).

Art therapy is used in various settings, including private practice offices, rehab centers, nursing homes, hospitals, wellness centers, mental health facilities, crisis centers, schools, senior centers, and many others (AATA, 2017).

You don’t have to have any experience in making art to do art therapy, and artistic skill or talent isn’t required. Art-making in art therapy can take many different forms using various art media, including painting, collage, drawing, sculpting, and photography.

How does art therapy work?

It can be challenging to talk about what’s bothering you, especially if your experiences or emotions are very painful. Using an artistic practice instead can be helpful because it’s a form of self-expression that doesn’t involve speech (AATA, 2017).

Working with your hands can help you heal and release painful thoughts and emotions, increase self-awareness, and give a sense of well-being. During the creative process, you may find it easier to communicate about things that are bothering you.

Who can art therapy help?

Art therapy can help people of all ages, from young children to the elderly (AATA, 2017).

It’s sometimes used for children who have experienced a traumatic event, have behavioral or social problems, or have learning disabilities or attention-deficit disorders.

Art therapy may also help people who have had a traumatic brain injury or a stroke and people with medical problems, like kidney disease or cancer (Lefèvre, 2016).

People dealing with mental health challenges, including depression and anxiety, eating disorders, and substance abuse disorders, may benefit from the use of art therapy (Regev, 2018). It may even help those with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, major depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (Chiang, 2019). Art therapy is also sometimes used to treat or manage dementia in older adults (Masika, 2020).

Does art therapy work?

As art therapy has gained popularity, there have been several studies on its effectiveness. One large-scale review of studies found art therapy may (Regev, 2018):

  • Improve the symptoms and emotional state of people with cancer
  • Help people with a wide variety of medical conditions other than cancer, such as heart failure
  • Improve the emotional state of prison inmates
  • Aid the thinking ability and improve the emotional state of elderly people
  • Help healthcare professionals reduce stress and avoid burnout

The review’s results for trauma victims and people with mental health disorders were inconclusive.

Other studies, including a large-scale review and analysis, also concluded that art therapy could improve thinking ability and reduce depression and anxiety in the elderly (Masika, 2020; Ciasca, 2018). Another study found that people with cancer using art therapy while getting palliative care reduced symptoms, including pain, depression, and anxiety (Lefèvre, 2016).

Overall, though, studies done on the effectiveness of art therapy tend to be small, and their results aren’t conclusive. More research is needed on this subject (Deshmukh, 2018).

How can you get started with art therapy?

If you’re interested in art therapy for yourself or someone you love:

  • Find a credentialed art therapist, preferably one with a Master’s degree in psychotherapy, along with an art therapy credential. You can find certified professionals on the Art Therapy Credentials Board website or check the American Art Therapy Association’s art therapist locator.
  • Contact your health insurance plan to find out if it covers art therapy. Your plan may cover art therapy sessions conducted by a psychologist or psychiatrist. Medical waivers may be available to help pay for costs as well.
  • When you find an art therapist, ask them what types of conditions they specialize in. For example, some art therapists work specifically with people with PTSD.

References

  1. American Art Therapy Association (AATA). (2017). About Art Therapy. American Art Therapy Association. Retrieved from https://arttherapy.org/about-art-therapy/
  2. Chiang, M., Reid-Varley, W. B., & Fan, X. (2019). Creative art therapy for mental illness. Psychiatry Research, 275, 129–136. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2019.03.025. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30901671/
  3. Ciasca, E. C., Ferreira, R. C., Santana, C., Forlenza, O. V., Dos Santos, G. D., Brum, P. S., & Nunes, P. V. (2018). Art therapy as an adjuvant treatment for depression in elderly women: a randomized controlled trial. Revista Brasileira de Psiquiatria (Sao Paulo, Brazil : 1999), 40(3), 256–263. doi: 10.1590/1516-4446-2017-2250. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29412335/
  4. Deshmukh, S. R., Holmes, J., & Cardno, A. (2018). Art therapy for people with dementia. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 9(9), CD011073. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD011073.pub2. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6513479/
  5. Lefèvre, C., Ledoux, M., & Filbet, M. (2016). Art therapy among palliative cancer patients: aesthetic dimensions and impacts on symptoms. Palliative & Supportive Care, 14(4), 376–380. doi: 10.1017/S1478951515001017. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26584521/
  6. Masika, G. M., Yu, D., & Li, P. (2020). Visual art therapy as a treatment option for cognitive decline among older adults. A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 10.1111/jan.14362. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1111/jan.14362. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32201968/
  7. Regev, D., & Cohen-Yatziv, L. (2018). Effectiveness of art therapy with adult clients in 2018—what progress has been made? Frontiers in Psychology, 9, 1531. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01531. Retrieved from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30210388/