The Expanding Reach of Art Therapy

The Expanding Reach of Art Therapy

Though it’s a relatively new approach to mental health treatment, art therapy is gaining traction and making a difference in people’s lives

By Farah Joan FardArtTherapy

You’ve probably seen adult coloring books in craft stores and bookshops. The art industry has enthusiastically promoted the hobby as a fun tool for stress management. And why not? Art is clearly a means of expression and can provide an effective way to relax and unwind.

Take this theory a step further, and you may find yourself in the field of art therapy. Art therapy helps a variety of people, including veterans, people with mental illness, children with autism, and individuals undergoing cancer treatment, just to name a few.

Research has demonstrated art’s effectiveness on child development, yet people often think of art educators as babysitters with crayons and paint. They tend to receive less funding than teachers of core subjects and are the first to find themselves on the chopping block when budgets come up short. If that’s how society treats arts education, how will it handle art therapy?

The analysis of that question may be tricky, given that art therapy is a relatively young profession; the American Art Therapy Association was founded in 1969. The U.S. government and educational institutions are developing guidelines and qualifications for those who wish to practice art therapy in the United States, and social acceptance of this therapy is growing. Art therapy finds use in a range of settings, including hospitals, psychiatric facilities, schools, senior centers, rehabilitation programs, and private practices, according to the American Art Therapy Association.

Regulating the Profession

Donna Betts, PhD, is the president of the board of the American Art Therapy Association and an assistant professor of art therapy at George Washington University. She has worked with both children and adults and has researched and presented internationally on assessment, adoption, foster care, autism, and eating disorders.

Betts has always been interested in art. Adopted as an infant, Betts used art as a way to explore her identity, but art therapy didn’t enter her realm of awareness until she was in her 20s, when she began studying both art and psychology at the undergraduate level. She found art therapy to be the perfect marriage of her interests, and she went on to get a doctorate in art education with a focus on art therapy.

Today, Betts says, more young people are being exposed to art therapy as it gains prominence in the field, and the United States is not alone in using art therapy as an effective approach to various physical and mental afflictions, including emotional distress, addiction, social development, anxiety, self-esteem issues, and more.

“I think that there is increasing recognition globally of the benefits of art therapy as a unique and distinct profession and not as some modality,” says Betts.

According to Betts, the profession of art therapy developed around the same time—about 60 years ago—in the United Kingdom and the United States. In the U.K., the National Health Service recognizes and manages art therapy, lending the practice credibility and allowing for a national reach. Conversely, although the art therapy credentialing and board certification process in the United States is managed nationally through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, the status of art therapy licensure varies from state to state.

“Because of that [arrangement], it varies state by state in terms of your ability to practice or your ability to get an art therapy license,” says Betts. “However, I do think [the benefits of art therapy are] equally recognized both here and in the U.K.”

As the profession becomes more established, certification standards have been set, and the American Art Therapy Association continues to gain momentum in establishing state-by-state licensing procedures. The association is also working to make art therapy licenses available in more states. This task is an uphill battle because many state legislatures don’t fully understand what art therapy is.

“The reason for all [the regulations] comes back to protecting the public from harm,” says Betts. “As with any viable mental health profession, … we are motivated primarily by the need to protect [patients] from … people who may say they are practicing art therapy when, in fact, they have not received the proper training.”

Amazing Impact

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, is the founder, director, and lead faculty member of the Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute, and she is the president of Art Therapy Without Borders.

With art programs being cut, and many non-core teachers given less and less financial support, it’s becoming more difficult for children to get one-on-one attention in art classes. As many school districts dismiss the necessity for art in public schools, many art therapists may feel it is a struggle to get a community on board. Therapists feel that if people don’t value arts in education, they probably won’t regard it as a valid form of therapy.

“One of the greatest misconceptions about art is that it is a frill,” says Malchiodi. “Recent research is proving just the opposite: Art is not an extra; it is an integral part of learning. Art therapy takes this [concept] a bit further by emphasizing not only the application of art activities with children with disability challenges, but also the importance of a relationship with a helping professional.”

Art therapists, Malchiodi points out, know which artistic and developmental benchmarks to look for and the ways to design art projects and activities for children and adults with physical and psychosocial challenges.

This kind of learning becomes a “whole body experience, rather than just a ‘frontal cortex’ one,” when the arts are involved, says Malchiodi. With art, the individual learns not only through words and thought, but also through movement, sight, and touch.

Despite the various benefits art therapy may provide to a patient, many misconceptions about the field remain.

“One of the most [prevalent] misconceptions about art therapy is that drawings can [help] … diagnose problems or disorders,” Malchiodi explains. “While each person may represent what is emotionally, socially, or physically challenging for them in their artistic expressions, it is not really possible to diagnose illnesses or disorders through a particular artwork.”

Instead, art therapy gives each individual the opportunity to express a unique experience, life history, and cultural narrative, says Malchiodi.

In this way, both Malchiodi and Betts agree, art therapy can act as an integrative mental health approach, addressing the body as a whole.

“We are not just addressing mental health issues, but the whole interconnected system that makes up a human being,” says Betts.

According to Betts, the art-making process can help children and adults who have trouble communicating verbally because of a communication disorder or a history of trauma. Making art can enable them to access parts of their brains that they cannot access using words alone.

“I see this as a bridge between what’s going on within the person and the verbal world,” says Betts. “We all operate in a verbal world, but the art is like a bridge to open that up. So, if someone is blocked verbally, the art therapy can help start a dialogue between the therapist and the patient.”

Malchiodi is currently working with veterans returning from combat and their families, including children. “What is repeatedly memorable about this work is the courage these children show through their artwork. I believe art therapy is really a method for enhancing and supporting resilience in all children, rather than only a method of treating disorders or problems,” says Malchiodi. “These children have taught me so much about not only courage, but also how important art expression can be in well-being and [in] telling important stories about their experiences as children in military families.”

Expanding Art Therapy

With the rising profile of the profession comes an increase in the number of universities offering master’s degrees in art therapy, thus fortifying the standards for practicing therapists and exposing more people to the field. Betts finds that students who study art therapy, become certified, and have a passion for the field often end up finding work and promoting the profession.

The U.K.’s National Health Service has promoted art therapy through social media, often posting videos of clients speaking about their experiences.

Malchiodi dispels the myth that only artists and disturbed individuals use art therapy. Patients may find themselves creating art and then discussing it with their therapists. She also mentions how the use of one’s hands and imagination can be fulfilling for clients and how the use of art therapy can reduce the need for pain medication in cancer patients and reduce anxiety in children. The use of art therapy can also help Alzheimer’s patients improve their cognitive skills.

According to the United States Department of Labor, the American Art Therapy Association had 5,000 members in 2013, the same year Pediatric Reports did a study titled “Expressive Arts Therapy for Hospitalized Children.” In January, Psychology Today discussed a study on art therapy’s effect in a prison setting. Organizations such as Miami’s Rise Up Gallery have been getting press coverage for workshops and exhibits demonstrating artwork of disabled artists, with a major exhibit running this summer. The gallery started the program as a therapeutic art workshop in collaboration with Jackson Memorial Hospital.

With all of these developments—and perhaps also the popularity of adult coloring books and the like—art therapy is gaining respect and recognition around the country and the world. Perhaps with this rise in recognition of art therapy’s effect and increase in awareness of the required training for licensed therapists, communities will reinforce art as an essential tool for development, healing, and education.


Get Schooled

Universities with graduate art therapy programs approved by the Education Program Approval Board of the American Art Therapy Association

Adler Graduate School
Richfield, Minnesota

Adler School of Professional Psychology
Chicago, Illinois

Albertus Magnus College
New Haven, Connecticut

Antioch University Seattle
Seattle, Washington

Caldwell University
Caldwell, New Jersey

College of New Rochelle
New Rochelle, New York

Concordia University
Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Drexel University
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Eastern Virginia Medical School
Norfolk, Virginia

Emporia State University
Emporia, Kansas

Florida State University
Tallahassee, Florida

George Washington University
Alexandria, Virginia

Hofstra University
Hempstead, New York

Lesley University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Long Island University, Post Campus
Brookville, New York

Loyola Marymount
Los Angeles, California

Marylhurst University
Marylhurst, Oregon

Marywood University
Scranton, Pennsylvania

Mount Mary University
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Nazareth College of Rochester
Rochester, New York

Notre Dame de Namur University
Belmont, California

Phillips Graduate Institute
Chatsworth, California

Pratt Institute
Brooklyn, New York

Naropa University
Boulder, Colorado

New York University
New York, New York

Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College
Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana

School of the Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago, Illinois

School of Visual Arts
New York, New York

Seton Hill University
Greensburg, Pennsylvania

Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville
Edwardsville, Illinois

Southwestern College
Santa Fe, New Mexico

Springfield College
Springfield, Massachusetts

University of Louisville
Louisville, Kentucky

Ursuline College
Pike, Ohio

Wayne State University
Detroit, Michigan

  1. […] for good reason that art therapy has grown in popularity in recent decades. Visual arts, such as painting and drawing, increase “emotional […]

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