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The Essentials of Art Therapy

In a typical treatment program for mental health or addiction issues, the person in treatment is expected to do a significant amount of talking. Sometimes the stories come easily, and the person can quickly begin to outline when the problem began, what happened when it grew stronger and how it can sometimes be controlled. These open discussions can give the therapist a huge amount of insight into what the person is feeling, and what sort of help that person might need in order to heal.

But what happens when the words won’t come? It’s often difficult to share deeply personal stories with a new therapist.Other times, difficult emotions may block effective communication. Sometimes art can be a way to fully describe a situation or emotions. When this happens, art therapy may help to bridge the gap between the patient and the therapist. By focusing on a task that is essentially nonverbal, the person may still be able to learn and participate in healing.

What Is Art Therapy?

In an art therapy session, the person may be provided with a wide array of art supplies such as:

In an art therapy session, the person is provided with a wide array of art supplies such as:

  • Paint
  • Colored pencils
  • Clay
  • Wire
  • Charcoal
  • Cloth, canvas, or paper

The person might then be asked to answer a specific question with the art project. For example, the person might be asked to create an image that describes how that person is feeling right now. Or, the person might be asked to create an accurate self-portrait using the tools provided. There are no “right” or “wrong” answers in art. According to the American Art Therapy Association art therapists are present from start to finish during a session, and they remain supportive and aware of ideas or issues that may show up in the artwork the person is creating.

art therapySleep is a good example of how our brain uses images to process information. As any active dreamer knows, the brain uses a series of symbols in order to process deep-seated memories and desires. A dove might symbolize a wish for peace, for example, while a cloud might indicate a weight on the person’s mind. When these symbols are applied to artwork, the therapist might ask questions designed to help the person think about those symbols and what they might mean. Insight might grow, as people begin to explore those messages bubbling from the subconscious.

The discussion of symbols and meaning might be of vital importance on an emotional level, but in addition, art therapy projects provide patients with a concrete result. Often, recovering from an addiction or a mental illness involves a great deal of work on the inside, with very little validation coming from outside. Progress is being made, to be sure, but the person might feel as though nothing is really being done since that person has no real product to point to. As Diane Waller writes in the journal Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, in an art therapy session, the client is involved in making a “significant art object,” and this can be deeply rewarding for people who aren’t accustomed to achieving their goals or seeing the benefits of their work. At the end of a session, they have a concrete example of a task they’ve accomplished.

In subsequent therapy sessions, clients might find it useful to look at their earlier pieces of artwork and compare their insights then and now. Sometimes, people find that they’ve changed immensely in just a few sessions. They might not be able to feel the changes, but the artwork might make their progress a bit more visible.

Common Uses of Art Therapy

Art therapy can be provided in a wide variety of settings including:

  • Hospitals
  • Clinics
  • Counselors’ offices
  • Addiction recovery centers
  • Mental health facilities

In general, anytime someone is facing a serious emotional challenge, art therapy can help to define goals and help make recovery more likely. There are some groups of people, however, who seem especially suited to the work of art therapy.

art-therapy-in-addiction-treatment-painting-dancing-music-therapyPeople who have suffered abuse as children, for example, might be ideal candidates for art therapy. These people may feel as though the things that happened to them are so terrible and so disturbing that they simply cannot verbalize them. They may want to talk about these issues, but they may be deeply ashamed about what has happened, and worried about what the therapist would say if the issues were brought to light. For these patients, art therapy provides a safe form of communication. By simply depicting the abuse through an inanimate object, they allow the therapist to guess about what happened. This can ease the discomfort of discussion and allow the person to reveal the issue without discussing it directly. The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment recommends art therapy as a way to allow patients who may be unable to talk about the abuse openly and honestly to express themselves.Art therapy is also beneficial for young adults, children, the elderly and people with communication deficits.

Art Therapy in Addiction people find it simply easier to communicate through art or movement. Others may prefer not to talk all of the time. Some people who have addictions have a longstanding history of sexual or physical abuse, meaning that they might be considered ideal candidates for art therapy. In addition, some drugs of abuse cause persistent brain cell damage that can lead to language loss or poor communication skills. Again, art therapy might be ideal for people like this.

Art therapy might be helpful for almost anyone with a history of addiction, however, as there are lessons available in these sessions that might be missing via other forms of therapy.

For example, in an interesting review of literature published in Art Therapy: The Journal of the Art Therapy Association, the author points out that about 80 percent of people who are going through therapy for addiction are only contemplating changing their behavior. The author believes that art therapy can help to encourage these people to see the damage that substance use has done and to motivate them to reverse that damage and accept help. In other words, if a person in therapy doesn’t truly believe that addiction is dangerous, and that person makes a disturbing self-portrait full of symbols of sickness and self-hatred, that person might quickly see that the addiction is actually a problem that must be solved. Art therapy might open that person’s eyes to the messages being relayed by the subconscious mind. As mentioned, people who are unable or unwilling to speak openly with a therapist might also benefit from art therapy. As their attention is focused on the task in their hands, they may find the words easier to access.

In addition, the benefits of art therapy for addiction can persist long after the formal treatment program is over.For example, some people who struggle with impulse control and addiction might be tempted to relapse to their drug use when they’re under stress or feeling some sort of emotional struggle. If these people participated in art therapy, they may know that being creative is an excellent way to reduce stress. As a result, they might learn to pull out their art therapy books and make a quick sketch when they feel the urge to take drugs beginning to sweep over them. Instead of relapsing, they’re soothing their minds with art.

Others in recovery may find that having a creative outlet helps them feel more connected and in control of their own thoughts and feelings. Rather than trying to bury their emotions and memories with drugs, they’re learning to express their feelings using art and creativity. Again, this might help to keep a relapse at bay.

What Are the Drawbacks?

The main drawback of art therapy, according to an article published in The Scientist, is that it hasn’t been proven effective in clear, peer-reviewed research. Art therapy techniques have been used in patients who have been part of medical research, but these patients also received other therapies at the same time, and it’s hard to tell if the outcomes were due to the art therapy or to other aspects of care that they received. Some people who prefer to avoid treatments until they have been scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt may struggle with art therapy for this reason.

In addition, not all art therapists are created equal.

As mentioned, an art therapist has a key role to play in this process, unlocking symbols and helping the person to open up and think about what those images might mean. People who perform art therapy sessions without the proper training might not be able to provide the same level of care as someone who has a significant amount of experience in the technique and knows just what to say and do to help someone feel the real benefits the therapy can provide.

This can be avoided, however, by looking for a therapist that is certified by the American Art Therapy Association. According to this organization, people who are certified have demonstrated that they have the proper education, training and clinical practice to perform art therapy sessions on a professional level.

Art Therapy at The Canyon

At The Canyon, we’re committed to providing innovative solutions that can help our clients come to a deeper understanding of their motivations and their inner strengths. Often, we serve patients who are dealing with both mental illnesses and addiction, and often, these people find their art projects to be quite helpful as they recover and learn more about their conditions and how they can be controlled. Other clients find that their art provides them with a roadmap they can follow that leads back to wellness and into a creative life. If you think art therapy might help you, please contact us. We’d be happy to discuss our treatment program and help you to make an informed choice about your care.