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Painting a Better Picture of Art Therapy

Art therapy continues to do meaningful, misunderstood work. Here are some key points art therapists wish more people knew.

The often-misunderstood treatment that’s gaining traction 

All too often, the mention of “art therapy” evokes crayons, scissors, and glue. It’s been relegated, in the minds of the general population, to the same domain as “retail therapy” and other unhelpful coping mechanisms for those who aren’t really serious about treatment. Art therapy is indulgent, kiddie stuff, says pop culture; it’s not actually useful, right? 

Art therapy could, understandably, suffer from an inferiority complex all its own. Instead, it continues to do meaningful, misunderstood work. Here are some key points art therapists wish more people knew:

Art therapy has been around a long time. Psychotherapy is in its infancy compared to art therapy. As long as people have been on this earth, humans have had a need to express themselves through art.

It’s not especially “touchy feely.” Art therapy is sometimes dismissed as “woo woo” stuff (as if being in touch with one’s emotions is a thing to disparage!), but art therapists know what they are doing. They must have a minimum of a master’s degree from an integrated program in psychotherapy and visual arts. They have extensive knowledge of human development and well as the history of art. This makes them well-suited to help clients work through trauma and unresolved emotions. 

Adult coloring books are great, but they aren’t art therapy. If it helps you relax and be less stressed, go for it! But adult coloring books have too much structure and yet too little supervision to be called art therapy.  

Art therapy is especially effective for kids because they may not have the communication skills to verbally describe what is going on in their lives. Expressing something on a blank page often comes easier. The same is true for adult trauma victims. 

Your work won’t be dissected. The art produced in art therapy isn’t subject to traditional criticism. No one is going to try to interpret it using any of the critical theories you learned in college. Instead, the client’s image is the client’s image. The art therapist isn’t there to interpret or judge; rather, the therapist’s role is to provide unconditional support, ask questions, and help guide the client. 

When life gets too difficult for words, art therapy is there. Art therapy can reframe client experiences into safe expressions. As long as the arts have been present, people have relied on creative expression for vital bolstering of mental health.