Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy which integrates the visual arts into treatment. Although people began researching the concept in the late 1900s, art therapy became a formal discipline in the 1940s, as a growing number of psychologists and other health care professionals realized that art could have a valuable place in psychiatric treatment. Art therapy is practiced in nations all over the world, under the auspice of organizations such as the American Art Therapy Organization (AATA), and it is relatively easy to locate an art therapist if you are interested in exploring this treatment for yourself.
Humans have have been making art for thousands of years, and the basic tenet of art therapy is that making art is inherently empowering, healing, and cathartic. Art can be used to express a range of emotions, including emotions which may sometimes be difficult for the patient to articulate. By integrating art into a treatment program, an art therapist hopes to elicit more information from the patient while helping the patient to get better.
In addition to being practiced in a private office, art therapy can also be found in hospitals, schools, homeless shelters, and other facilities with vulnerable or emotionally troubled populations. By engaging their patients in the creative process, art therapists often evoke strong emotions and an intense personal analysis on the part of the patient. While the process of making visual art is cathartic, it also creates a visual reward and record for the client, allowing him or her to see or feel the issues being worked on.
An art therapy session may take a number of forms. Generally, the therapist holds a preliminary session to talk with the patient and assess his or her needs. In the art session, the therapist provides appropriate tools and supplies so that patients can work in sculpture, painting, drawing, pastels, charcoal, collage, and so forth. If a patient has an impairment, the art therapist tailors the session to that impairment; for example, people without the use of their hands can work with special tools designed to be held in the mouth or with the feet.
The patient is encouraged to create whatever he or she feels like, or an art therapist may provide an assignment of sorts which the two can discuss at the end of the session. Different art therapists have different approaches; some, for example, may engage in talk therapy while the patient works, while others remain quiet and ask questions or talk when the artist is not at work. Often, the art carries clear visual messages which may be very obvious, but it can also be more subtle, and exploring the subtlety is a crucial part of art therapy.
In many countries, there are clear education requirements which must be fulfilled before someone can offer art therapy. These requirements are usually set by organizations like the AATA, which focus on promoting professional standards for the discipline. Therapists may choose concentrations of art therapy, such as working with children or the disabled, or they may take a more broad approach, depending on personal taste.