The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” reflects the powerful effect that the arts and creative expression have on human understanding and communication. Art therapy works to harness that power for therapeutic means.

Just as a painting or a piece of music can say something in ways that almost defy description, art therapy provides individuals facing physical, emotional, and cognitive challenges with new pathways toward understanding and self-expression.

People do not have to be artists or even “good at art” to benefit from art therapy. This form of treatment is more than an art class or just something to keep people occupied. Art therapy uses the power of the arts and different modes of communication to get people to open up and engage with their therapy in new ways, which may enhance healing of all kinds.

Keep reading to learn more about art therapy and other forms of creative therapy that may benefit people experiencing mental health issues.

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According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a kind of therapy that integrates mental health and human services by using “active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience.”

Licensed professionals who are trained in both therapy and art conduct these sessions, which are suitable for people of all ages. It is possible to incorporate art therapy into one-on-one sessions, group therapy, and family or couples counseling.

One of the main goals of art therapy is to improve people’s well-being. It can help improve or bring back an individual’s functioning. Art therapy takes place in educational, medical, and rehabilitation settings, as well as in private practices and mental health clinics.

People who make art in any form, whether they consider themselves artists or not, are taking part in a process of self-discovery that gives them a safe space to express their feelings. Furthermore, it allows them to feel more in control over their life. This creative process is enjoyable in its own right, but this is not the only activity that goes on in an art therapy session.

In an art therapy session, an individual may do some of the following exercises:

  • painting
  • drawing
  • finger painting
  • working with clay
  • carving
  • sculpting
  • doodling and scribbling
  • making collages

Although these exercises take place under the guidance of an art therapist, what emerges should be the unfiltered responses of the individual. Understanding them can promote mental health and well-being.

To unpack this understanding, the individual and their art therapist will discuss the artwork. They will explore what objects, people, and images do and do not appear in it.

Although art has been an integral part of the human experience for thousands of years, the practice of art therapy is a relatively new development, with an artist from the United Kingdom first describing it in the 1940s.

Key thinkers came to the field from backgrounds in education, the visual arts, and psychotherapy. The “mother of art therapy,” Margaret Naumburg, became influenced by the first wave of psychoanalytic theory in the early 20th century. She believed that through the creative process, individuals brought to light unconscious thoughts and feelings that they might have repressed.

She felt that when individuals talked through this creative process with a therapist, they could come to understand what their artwork was revealing to them about themselves. This understanding would, in turn, promote psychological healing. Her writings continue to be influential in the 21st century.

The Art Therapy Credentials Board say that art therapy can address the needs of:

  • people who experienced trauma, such as combat or a natural disaster
  • individuals with significant health challenges, including traumatic brain injuries and cancer
  • people with certain conditions, such as depression, autism, and dementia

Art therapy can help reduce stress and anxiety for people living with pain. In addition, experts say that the practice may be useful for people living with other conditions, such as:

Practitioners say that art therapy can also help people enhance specific skills by:

  • improving their approach to conflict resolution
  • enhancing social skills
  • managing stress
  • strengthening their ability to self-regulate
  • improving their understanding of themselves

Researchers have found that art therapy can be helpful for children facing the following specific challenges:

  • childhood trauma
  • disabilities and special educational needs
  • conviction as a juvenile offender
  • chronic asthma

Art therapy can also benefit children who are not dealing with one singular issue but face a variety of challenges in life.

The visual arts are not the only artistic discipline that it is possible to incorporate into a therapeutic practice.

Other forms of creative therapy include:

Music

Music therapy can involve:

  • music-listening sessions
  • song and lyric writing
  • music in performance

Music therapy may support people with mental health issues, injuries, and Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions. Some pregnant people may find it helpful during labor.

Dance

Dance therapy employs nonverbal communication to evaluate and treat an individual’s condition.

Drama

An active and experiential process, drama therapy works by helping people express their feelings and build interpersonal skills through storytelling and intentional improvisation.

Poetry

Poetry therapy works to promote healing through expressive writing, such as journaling and therapeutic storytelling.

Expressive therapy

When additional creative art forms feature as part of a therapeutic process, it is known as expressive therapy.

One study found that adding dance, drama, music, and movement activities to therapy sessions for people with dementia resulted in noticeable improvements in communication, engagement, and pleasure.

Art therapy is a therapeutic approach that promotes healing by tapping into and revealing an individual’s deepest thoughts and feelings through the arts. Practitioners have completed training in both art and therapy.

This therapy is accessible to people of all ages, including those who do not consider themselves good at art. Research indicates that it might be helpful for people with a wide variety of conditions, from eating disorders to trauma.

For those who find other forms of therapy difficult or ineffective, art therapy could be an excellent option to try as an adjunctive treatment.