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How Art Therapy Is Used to Help People Heal​

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What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being. The American Art Therapy Association characterizes art therapy as an approach to mental health that utilizes the process of creating art to improve mental, physical, and emotional wellness. The goal of art therapy is to utilize the creative process to help people explore self-expression and, in doing so, find new ways to gain personal insight and develop new coping skills. Techniques used in art therapy can include drawing, painting, coloring, sculpting, or collage. As clients create art, they may analyze what they have made and how it makes them feel. Through exploring their art, people can look for themes and conflicts that may be affecting their thoughts emotions, and behaviors. People do not need to have artistic ability or special talent to participate in art therapy, and people of all ages including children, teens, and adults can benefit from it. Some research suggests that just the presence of art can play a part in boosting mental health.A 2017 study found that art displayed in hospital settings contributed to an environment where patients felt safe. It also played a role in improving socialization and maintaining an identity outside of the hospital.


People have been relying on the arts to communicate, express themselves, and heal for thousands of years. But art therapy didn’t start to become a formal program until the 1940s. Doctors noted that individuals suffering from mental illness often expressed themselves in drawings and other artworks, which led many to explore the use of art as a healing strategy.3 Since then, art has become an important part of the therapeutic field and is used in some assessment and treatment techniques.


Art therapy can be used to treat a wide range of mental disorders and psychological distress. In many cases, it might be used in conjunction with other psychotherapy techniques such as group therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Some situations in which art therapy might be utilized include:

Adults experiencing severe stress
Children suffering from behavioral or social problems at school or at home
Children or adults who have experienced a traumatic event
Children with learning disabilities
Individuals suffering from a brain injury
People experiencing mental health problems

Some conditions that art therapy may be used to treat include:

Aging-related issues
Eating disorders
Emotional difficulties
Family or relationship problems
Medical conditions
Psychological symptoms associated with other medical issues
Psychosocial issues
Substance use

One review of the effectiveness of art therapy found that this technique helped cancer patients undergoing medical treatment improve their quality of life and alleviated a variety of psychological symptoms.

How It Works

An art therapist may use a variety of art methods including drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage with clients ranging from young children to the elderly. Clients who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, domestic abuse, anxiety, depression, and other psychological issues can benefit from expressing themselves creatively.

Inpatient offices, private mental health offices, schools, and community organizations are all possible settings where art therapy services may be available. Some specific setting where art therapy might take place include:

Art studios
Colleges and universities
Community centers
Correctional facilities
Elementary schools and high schools
Group homes
Homeless shelters
Private therapy offices
Residential treatment centers
Senior centers
Wellness center
Women’s shelters

People often wonder how an art therapy session differs from the average art class. Where an art class is focused on teaching technique or creating a specific finished product, art therapy is more about letting clients focus on their inner experience.

In creating art, people are able to focus on their own perceptions, imagination, and feelings. Clients are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world.

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