What is Art Therapy and Why is it Important?

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND
This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

Have you ever wondered why when you are creative that it gives you a good feeling? You may feel proud of yourself for what you have created, or you may feel relaxed and for a time focused only on what you were creating. Art therapy incorporates making art or being creative with any medium, with psychotherapy treatment. At a time when mental health disorders are increasing, it is important to know what options are available for treatment. This is important to me because according to Utah.gov, my home state Utah has the highest rates for suicides and depression diagnoses in the country. These statistics and my own need to create things to successfully care for my mental health led me to the question of what art therapy is and why it is important to have as a treatment option.

Taking an art class may feel therapeutic but there are specific educational levels and accreditation required to offer art therapy to patients. The Art Therapy Association states that art therapists must acquire a master’s degree from a program that is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), and is the same accreditation required for other mental health professionals. Practicing art therapy in any state, requires that state to be licensed with the American Art Therapist Association, which upholds the accreditation standards of all practicing art therapists. This protects the public, art therapists and employers.

Art therapy is as flexible as traditional psychotherapy and is offered to many different people in many different settings. According to the Utah Art Therapy Association (UATA) “…art therapy is practiced in a wide variety of settings including hospitals, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, forensic institutions, schools, crisis centers, senior communities, private practice, and other clinical and community settings.” Art therapy is available within all these settings and offers a different option for those seeking mental health treatment.

There can be some confusion about the legitimacy of art therapy because art activities have been promoted as “art therapy” creating a blurred line. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) defines art therapy as: “Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” There are many ways art therapists work with their patients. One way is that an art therapist may interpret art that is made by a patient or encourage a patient to share their feelings about their creations within a psychotherapy environment. Traditional psychotherapy is based on verbal conversations to allow a person to talk through mental health disorders and has been practiced since 1879 but may not be effective for everyone. This is where art therapy can come in and help someone who may find it hard to express themselves verbally.

A mental health disorder known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can affect those who suffer in such a way and there is an inability to speak about past trauma. Art Therapy can help those who suffer from PTSD. Melissa Walker is an art therapist that has worked with military members and their families since 2008. Walker developed mask making and this has been greatly beneficial for service members who have combat trauma. Walker gave a TedTalk, “Art can Heal PTSD’s Invisible Wounds” in 2015. When speaking about one service member Walker shared; “when that service member is haunted by some traumatic memory, he continues to paint. Every time he paints these disturbing images, he sees them less or not at all.” Art therapy is particularly beneficial for those who suffer from PTSD, as this condition often silences a person who is struggling with the symptoms. Walker’s work helped military members who were afraid to talk about what was going on inside their minds and this improved their lives.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA-NC

People have been creating art since the beginning of time, for beauty, for storytelling and for the very process of being creative and expressing themselves without words. Art enables someone to express themselves visually. There have been studies done to discover how art affects the brain. Some artists refer to achieving a trance like feeling while being creative as “flow”. On July 9–10, 2014, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) cosponsored a meeting titled “The Nature of Creativity in the Brain.”. The report described reaching “flow” as “…that in a creative process where one is engaged in a task that does not require self-reflective activity, we end up in a state of productivity that is actually often pleasurable, because we’re not really aware of ourselves.” Being creative and reaching a “flow” state can help create feelings of belonging, happiness, a sense of accomplishment, and may help a person forget themselves for a time.

The prefrontal cortex of the brain is responsible for decision making, performing functions, and driving us toward our goals. It is the part of the brain that measures our activities and tasks and reminds us of the here and now. Charles Limb, a neuroscientist and musician at the University of California performed MRIs on Jazz musicians to study what happens in the brain when the musicians improvise (are being creative). The MRI’s showed that the prefrontal cortex almost completely shuts down. Being creative may have the ability to shut down the “self-awareness” part of the brain helping a person focus on something else besides their trauma or other symptoms of mental disorders.

Art therapy is not just for treatment of mental health disorders, it can be used to lift spirits when an intensive treatment like chemotherapy is needed, or a patient has undergone surgery and must stay in the hospital for an extended period. At Primary Children’s Hospital located in Northern Utah children and their families have access to art therapists within the hospital. Primary Children’s Hospital is under the umbrella of Intermountain Healthcare and on their website, it states, “Art therapy focuses on art making for self-expression, emotional exploration, processing feelings related to the hospital experience, connecting with others, and engaging in positive coping.” This is an example of how art therapy can teach individuals and families how to cope with difficult things. In a report done by the National Endowment for the Arts they asked chairman Dana Gioia to share her thoughts on art therapy within the hospital setting, she said, “The arts have an extraordinary ability to enhance our lives, to help us heal and to bring us comfort in times of great stress.” The art therapy programs are not only beneficial for patients but also for healthcare providers. Hospitals often have artwork displayed and live music that refreshes patients and healthcare providers equally.

This Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

In Lisa Hinz article “The Ethics of Art Therapy: Promoting Creativity as a Force for Positive Change’’, she states the AATA is in alignment with the American Psychology Association (APA) when they say they are” in favor of a human rights agenda supporting fair and equal treatment and promoting creativity as a fundamental value.” Ethics in art therapy is held in high importance as a basis for every person no matter age, gender, race, sexuality, sexual orientation, or religion. In 1977 the American Psychological Association published a code of ethics, specifically for psychology including art therapy. This was the result of harmful acts by doctors, psychologists, and scientists prior to this time. The ethics code focuses on ensuring therapists are aware of patients’ cultural preferences and does not unknowingly discriminate against anyone out of ignorance. Hinz goes on to say, “Art therapists should be at the forefront of movements promoting arts and wellness and pay particular attention to the healing aspects of the freedom of artistic expression and creativity.” Freedom of expression is an important amendment to keep unchanged so that patients seeking art therapy treatment are never turned away based on discriminations.

Even though there are many resources for finding information about the success of art therapy, what it is, how it works and the different types and settings of art therapy that is practiced, art therapy research is still in its infancy. Non-bias studies with clear guidelines are lacking in the art therapy research databases according to Anne Marie Anning, who is an art therapist and senior researcher at the University of Applied Sciences in Leiden, Netherlands. In Anning’s article, “The effectiveness of art therapy for anxiety in adults: A systematic review of randomized and non-randomized controlled trials”, she reviewed 776 studies done in art therapy settings. Only 3 of these studies met the criteria she had narrowed down for research. Anning’s conclusion of the review found that “High quality trials studying effectiveness on anxiety and mediating working mechanisms of AT (Art Therapy) are currently lacking for all anxiety disorders and for people with anxiety in specific situations.” Anning’s elimination of most of the studies based on too many biases, shows that more regulated studies need to be done for art therapy effectiveness outcomes. If more research is done, more conclusive evidence can be documented and used to determine the effectiveness of art therapy.

The side effects of mental health disorders can disrupt families, social wellness, and jobs, this can make doing simple things difficult. Art therapy accesses a different part of the brain than traditional psychotherapy. Some believe this is what makes it effective and reaches those who find it difficult to share their experiences. Art therapy enhances lives, builds self-esteem, helps build self-awareness and is effective for mental wellbeing. Art transcends speech, cultural boundaries, human boundaries, language, and politics. This flexibility allows art therapy to be effective for people from many different backgrounds. There is plentiful information about how art therapy is effective for many different mental disorders, but art therapy research is still in its early stages. Art therapists and patients have already shown that art therapy is beneficial and rewarding, now better research needs to be conducted to prove how effective it is. As technology improves it allows better studies to document how art therapy affects the mind and shows the benefits which will support and validate art therapy in the future.

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