Many people think that art therapy is coloring in an adult coloring book or taking a craft workshop. While those activities have definite mental health benefits, arts and crafts projects are not the same as art therapy.


What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy. A mental health professional uses the creative process of making art to help clients communicate painful emotions and challenging issues. Art therapy helps us explain feelings or experiences that we haven’t had the words to explain. Many people who are dealing with challenging emotions can’t articulate how they feel. Young children may not have the vocabulary to express what is wrong. Adolescents may be defiant, angry, and refuse to talk. Through this expressive and creative form of therapy, clients can begin to understand and manage emotions. Self-expression through the creative process, guided by the therapist, can lead to a path for healing.


How Does Making Art Impact the Brain?

“The processes of creativity are healing and life enhancing,” says Juliet King, a researcher in art therapy and neuroscience. “We see people feel better, able to talk more fluently when they are making art. We see a decrease in symptoms such as stress.” A recent study used EEG to measure brain patterns of people who were creating art and people who were tossing coins and rotating pencils. The brains of the people who were making art showed overall increased power compared with the brains of the people who were engaged in the rote motor tasks of coin tossing and pencil rotation.


Do I Need to Be Artistic to Participate in Art Therapy?

No, you don’t have to be artistic to participate in art therapy. This therapy isn’t like an art class; you don’t have to worry about producing a masterpiece. Art therapy helps you express what’s locked up inside through coaching from the therapist as you engage in the creative process of making art.


What Types of Art Do You Do in Art Therapy?

The art therapist tailors the art project to the needs of the client. Projects may include painting, finger painting, watercolors, drawing, mandalas, doodling, collage, clay, paper mâché, wood working, sculpting, jewelry making, sewing, weaving, knitting, scrapbooking, or vision boards. The therapist will evaluate your treatment goals, experience, and therapeutic needs when developing your projects. Different types of media elicit different types of responses. Projects may change from session to session.


Who Can Benefit from Art Therapy?

Art therapists work many different types of clients, including those with:


  • Mental and behavioral health issues—anxiety, eating disorders, depression, self-harming
  • Physical health problems—cancer, chronic disease, disabilities
  • Communication or learning disorders—autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder
  • Memory disease—dementia, Alzheimer’s Disease
  • Traumatic stress—PTSD, physical and sexual abuse, bullying, domestic abuse
  • LBGTQ concerns—issues with identity or sexual orientation
  • Major life transitions—divorce, retirement, bereavement


Where Do Art Therapist Work?

Art therapists work in hospitals, outpatient clinics, crisis centers, memory care facilities, schools, psychiatric facilities, veterans’ clinics, private practice, and other settings.


What Training do Art Therapists Have?

“Art therapy is a regulated mental and human services profession,” states the American Art Therapy Association (ATTA). Art therapists are practitioners who are trained in applied psychological theory. They have master’s degrees in art therapy or a related health field and obtain advanced certification. In Texas an art therapist must be a Licensed Professional Counselor with Specialty Designation in Art Therapy. You can verify a practitioner’s credentials through the American Art Therapy Association website.


What is the Difference Between Art Therapy and Art for Self-Care?

Doing art projects at home or in workshops can be a form of self-care. Connecting with your creativity helps relieve stress and has mental health benefits. If you are more anxious or stressed than usual, art or crafts as a form of self-care may help. If you are suffering from more acute or challenging issues, however, consider art therapy as an alternative to traditional talk therapy. Some art therapy practices accept health insurance.


When choosing an art therapist, look for one who is a registered art therapist (ATR) or a board-certified art therapist (ATR-BC). To find a licensed art therapist near you, go to


“Art therapy uniquely promotes the ability to unlock emotional expression by facilitating nonverbal as well as verbal communication.”

–American Art Therapy Association


Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.

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