Why Art Therapy?

A guest post by Jennifer Davis Price.

When I completed my Art Therapy Counseling program, I spent a lot of time explaining that I was not an art teacher. Art therapy is a method of providing assistance to clients using the creative process.

Art therapy also isn't just therapy for the artsy-fartsy; it can benefit anyone regardless of creative ability. As a part of my coursework, I facilitated art therapy sessions for clients with mood disorders, children (both as a part of community alcohol and other drug prevention work and to improve self esteem), and a pain management group. Other career options for art therapists include, working with the mentally ill, the developmentally challenged, hospice patients and their families, geriatric communities, and just about any niche population you can imagine.

Through this process, I was able to witness art therapy make a difference in several ways:

  • Art Therapy helps 'open people up'. As they reflect on a given topic and sketch with markers, or experience pastels swirling on a page for the first time, people may begin to talk. Being able to express their experience through an image helps many clients find words to complex feelings that might otherwise be difficult to convey.
  • Seeing their internal workings on paper provides insight both to the client and the counselor about their unconscious reactions. For instance, a person might express that something wasn't a big deal, but an image with jagged, harsh lines would suggest that there were stronger emotions that might be worth further exploration.
  • The process itself reveals useful clues about the clients psyche. Perhaps a person has a hard time choosing one color, is nervous about not getting it right, creates large images that fall off the page or small images that float in the middle of the page. Each of these scenarios provides valuable information that can help in the clients progression towards healing.

Art therapy is a powerful mode of working with people seeking to improve their well being. Having an image or 3-D piece as a part of the conversation not only provides additional information, but can be empowering to a person in the vulnerable position of seeking help. If your client is having difficulty finding the "right" words or needs assistance with accessing the unconscious, a referral for art therapy may be the right move.

Peace and healing to us all.



Nice colorful post!!

I think art therapy seems like such a nice way to work with folks who don't necessarily connect with the model of straight talk-therapy (or people who do, for that matter). It seems like it would be a great way to get in touch with parts of yourself that aren't so easy to access. I get that there might be some hesitance accompanying self-imposed pressure to produce something 'good' though, which I think is too bad, because I think a lot of people never try making art because they feel left out of the group with 'natural talent'.

You are so right Heather... most people aren't artistic or haven't been given lessons since childhood, and hence are shy or reticent to try their hand at it later on in life. They know their own "artwork" would stink in comparison to other's work who are real artists by nature, or have been doing it long enough to get good at it.
But these Art Therapists aren't interested in a piece of artwork per se, which is great. They are looking for the subconscious problem to come forth through the medium, as opposed to someone who can paint a pastoral scene like Monet, (or was it Manet, I get confused with those two!)
I remember taking care of this little girl, and when her father committed suicide, her crayon drawings became real messy, using a lot of black crayon marks. Her mother would sort of scold her, and tell her to go back to coloring "pretty pictures" like before. Well, one day she was telling me about this recent drawing syndrome, and it just came to me that Lynette was expressing her sadness, grief, anger, angst, fears, loneliness, you name it. So I told the Mom to encourage her daughter to draw using the darkest colors in the box, and to draw something herself with those same dark crayons. It sounded crazy to me then, but it sounded OK too in a way. Children will do things that "come natural", as opposed to adults who feel they must always compete with their peers. Maybe it's just the American competitive mindset. So I told Lynette I wanted her to draw me 2 really dark pictures every week, because I felt sad too, and didn't know how to color like that anymore. She was happy all of a sudden, like as if she had permission to let out and feel deeply about this great loss in her life. And I told Char to just encourage her in anything she did for a while, and to make a scrapbook of these drawings, so that she could see, visibly, how her daughter was feeling emotionally, and how she was healing over the months. Lynette would also be able to see how the drawings became lighter, or at least less numerous as time went by.
It's true, time heals all wounds, as I was to later learn. Someone sent me a journal book to write in when I lost a loved one, and told me to daily write down one sad thought and two happy ones or things I could be grateful for.
At first it was hard to get past the sad thought stage, and later on I would jump on the blessings and jot down 3 or four of them. I was thankful for her sending me the journal book, for I never would have thought to buy one for myself. I guess being somewhat removed from the actual incident helps to be objective and helpful in a way.

And I guess any kind of "art" therapy would help to uncover and expose the wounds of life, to air and sunlight, so they can heal alright. That would include typical artwork, as well as music, a craft, even a dance, poem or song. Everyone expresses herself or himself in unique and creative ways, although it may look weird to an outsider who is not an Art Therapist that can decipher these inner feelings and offer comfort, sympathy and encouragement.
I wish I had followed a counseling career, especially nowadays, when it seems everything is getting harder for most everyone. Especially the baby boomer population, who see social services being cut for their age group, after they finally arrived at their 'golden years'. I wonder what percent of the population is in need of serious counseling at any point in time? I'm thinking like 15-20% of the people could use Art Therapy or something akin to that to overcome their predicament. What do you think?

That is such an interesting question, Dr. Drea. I'm thinking a million things at once! I'm actually of the opinion that people are increasingly in need of more formal counseling because the networks of 'community' have been so broken down, and folks are becoming more and more isolated. I've read that the number one protective factor against depression is social support, and unfortunately I think more and more people have less and less of that. I also think that the scope of what's considered 'normal' behavior and emotion is narrowing, and society is making less space for that experience of things: people used to go into formal mourning and wear black when someone close to them died. I get that that would have been limiting in some ways, but at least there was an acknowledgement that you probably weren't going to be ok for a while after a big loss. Now we go back to work after a week. (or less!)
I'm not trying to put us all out of business here: of course I think that therapy is really important and can make a big difference in people's lives, but I have certainly felt disheartened at work after having a really productive session with someone, and knowing that they'll be going right back out into the lonely and difficult world that they spend most of their time in. I guess that's why I picked social work: the problem is usually not just in the person- in fact I think often it has nothing to do with them personally- they just got dealt a particularly bad hand. I've read so much about the benefits of a sense of community- longer life, better health, less depressed, more active....the list goes on.

You hit the nail on the head Heather... when people feel disconnected from family and friends, their world sort of falls apart on them.
Think to the way things used to be:
1- People had larger families, with many children, and earlier in life
2- People usually stayed in their town or community for their whole lifetime
3- Their children had children quite early, and grandchildren were all around
4- The mourning for loved ones and the cemetery were right there for visits
5- There were no phones; you talked to the person face-to-face, or wrote
6- If you had a problem, there were dozens of people you could call on
7- People shared from what they grew in the garden, and donated surplus
8- People were more God-centered and thankful for their blessings

This is sort of the mindset you find in Amish communities or in Israeli Kibbutzes where people can own their own things, but they share communally the surplus, and help each other by taking turn at tasks.
Plus you know that you will be cared for when you get old, and that you will be missed when you depart this earth, and that you'll get a decent burial.
All these things add up to a a healthier, more productive community, where each person is appreciated for what they can contribute, and each person realizes his or her own value in the sight of others. More energy is poured into productivity which raises your immune system, and less into worrying about the future, which depletes your energy, lowers immunity, and causes depression.
Communal living, modern stye, could be accomplished if more people would stay local, and put their energies into a nice, comfortable community, where each individual was valued and encouraged to produce whatever it was that made them happy and used their God-given talents. Even an invalid can be productive with their hands.
But no, every family, and they're getting smaller, is ambitious only for their own selves, to be equal or better than the Jones' next door, to make as much money as they can even if it involves hardly ever seeing their own family members, to be able to spend $200 on a Coach purse so they can show they're oh so cool and trendy, etc. Our society has broken up, become self-absorbed, vapid, selfishly materialistic and controlled by the advertising media. It's got a hold on all of us like no other, like we're in the mouth of a beast, almost ready to be swallowed.
Just a tense world, and hence quite a sick world.
Doing things for others, sharing what you have, helping a friend in need, caring for a child who is not watched over by parents very well, these are all things that can often make one feel useful. And what goes around, comes around; and knowing this removes part of the stress and angst of our pressured and isolated, and often meaningless lives.
Are communal groups being formed in response to the desintegrating American lifestyle? I bet they are, and probably more on the East and West coasts. The South and West seem to still be hanging on to larger, more stable family lifestyles, but this could just be my perspective. Is it time some of us join up? Only you can decide that! Have a transcendental holy week if that's what gives you courage and hope, and let's all send positive, energetic vibes to Miss Leigh and her little family, to sustain her and give her strength to deal with all her patients. I bet we'll all get something back!

Love vibes to all,
Dr Drea

Have you ever heard about Ebru Art ? It can be considered as a therapy, it tends to give pleasing effect, even if you watch people doing it. You should check it.

leigh's picture

Hey Burak! I hadn't heard of Ebru 'til now - it looks like a soothing meditative process, as well as beautiful. Thanks for the suggestion, I might have to give it a try with my daughter :)

Although not everyone knows this; Art Therapy has been an integral part of the "conventional" therapies - and not just for children - since at least the mid-80s. And it has come a long way in that time, too. There are so many mediums to choose from - almost any client could benefit from Art Therapy sessions. And it DOES tell the supervising psychotherapist a great deal more than plain "talk therapy". As an auditory processor, I do not say this lightly - but everyone is at their best when using all channels; visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. I hope to see more on the topic soon; not just on Whereapy, but also in the mainstream journalistic outlets. Let's face it; there are a lot of us in need out here. I look forward to the time when finding such a practitioner (art therapist) and getting their services covered as any other medical service, will be easier and more commonplace.

Dr. Drea - Thanks for sharing your story. As for your question; actually I think EVERYONE could benefit from Art Therapy - just like everyone could benefit from Chiropractic or Massage Therapy - because we all have something that's "just a little bit not-quite-right" even when we are feeling fine and healthy; adjustments sometimes need to be made so that we can stay feeling well. Let's hope it can happen for all who want it.