What is art therapy?

Man participating in art therapy session for bereavement

There are many different types of therapy designed to improve your emotional wellbeing. These include counselling, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy, art therapy and behavioural activation, to name but a few. Depending on your situation, personality and preferences, you may find that one type of therapy is more useful than the others.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses artistic methods to help a client express themselves and communicate their emotions. Methods can include painting, drawing, sculpting, and any other creative crafts.

This kind of therapy is suitable for clients of all ages and can be used for a wide variety of mental health problems, emotional difficulties, disabilities, neurological conditions and even physical illnesses. You do not need to have any previous experience or artistic skill to benefit from art therapy.

How does it work?

Sessions are led by a qualified art therapist, who is usually a fully trained psychotherapist who has chosen to specialise in art for their Master’s degree. Regular sessions can take place on hospital wards or in the community, for example in local village halls and function rooms.

The creative process involved in creating a piece of art can raise your confidence and self-esteem. It also allows you to express thoughts and feelings that you cannot put into words. Usually you will be asked to draw from your imagination, rather than the objects around them, in order to draw on what is in your heart and mind.

The art therapist may ask you about what you have drawn in order to let you think about what it is you have expressed. This can lead to a discussion about what you, personally, see the image as and what your thought process was in creating it.

Is it an effective form of therapy?

Some people are sceptical about the benefits of art therapy when they first hear about this therapeutic technique. However, there are numerous psychological studies carried out in the 21st Century that show a direct correlation between art therapy and increased wellbeing.

A 2006 study by Gersch and Sao Joao Gonclaves showed that children going through grief and family problems reported feeling and coping better after art therapy. Organisations such as Marie Curie use elements of art therapy to help children cope with bereavement.

Seifert and Baker studied Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and found that participants benefited from creating artwork. Interestingly, as the participants’ diseases progressed in the later stages, they were particularly drawn to symmetrical patterns. Another study of dementia patients in 2006 showed a clear increase in social engagement and mental alertness after art therapy.

Franks and Whitaker in 2007 showed that adults with personality disorders scored lower on the PSDI scale, which measures levels of distress, after art sessions. They also saw a reduction in symptoms of their personality disorders.

Gussak recorded the impact of art therapy on 48 male prisoners. The prisoners showed significant improvements in their behaviour and mood.

For more evidence of art therapy’s positive impact on all types of emotional, mental and medical problems, you can read Slayton, D’Archer and Kaplan’s review of findings on recent art therapy studies. This gives a clear overview of all recent studies into the power of art therapy.

Where can you take part in art therapy?

Art therapy can be offered at hospitals or care homes, or in community venues. If you feel you would benefit from art therapy, your GP may be able to signpost you to a suitable service.

You can also search for an art therapist via the British Association of Art Therapists.

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