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Healing Through Art

What is Art Therapy?

“Art therapy is mental health profession that uses the creative process of art-making to improve and enhance the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages,” says Julia Connell, Communications Manager at the American Art Therapy Association. Art therapy has been a recognized field for quite a while, since the 1940’s, and has been growing in popularity ever since. Art therapy is now utilized in a variety of environments, including schools, hospitals, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, forensic institutions, crisis centers, senior communities, private practice, and more.

A myriad of conditions

The conditions that can be treated with art therapy are numerous. “The creative process helps people better resolve conflicts and problems, improve interpersonal skills, manage problematic behaviors, reduce negative stress, and achieve personal insight,” says Connell. Trauma is a common condition that can be treated with art therapy, most commonly PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), but also including abuse and disaster. People suffering from mental health conditions like autism, dementia, depression and eating disorders can also be greatly helped.

While many people associate art therapy with mental and emotional conditions, there are many physical conditions that are commonly treated as well. These include cancer, traumatic brain injury and physical disability. Though these are the most commonly treated conditions, there is evidence that art therapy may be useful to treat even more illnesses and disabilities.

“I believe that art therapists and healing artists have only scratched the surface of what art can do,” says Grace Comisso, who works as a healing artist in California and is an alumni of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

How Art Therapy Works

“Art therapists are master’s level professionals trained in both art and therapy who use art in assessment, treatment, and research. They generally work with individuals one-on-one but they also provide services to groups such as couples, families, classrooms, and those with similar conditions or needs,” says Connell.

Though art therapy can be offered as a singular treatment therapy, it can also be used in conjunction with other treatments. Often times, art therapists consult with a patient’s physicians, psychologists, nurses, mental health counselors, other therapists and teachers in order to contribute to a persons’ whole health. These health professionals often work together and can provide each other with important assessments to help improve care.

The process of art therapy varies from patient to patient, and the experience is usually tailored to best meet their specific needs. In general, art therapy usually utilizes a variety of art disciplines and mediums, like drawing, painting, sculpture and photography.

“Clients or patients are given choices in both art media and themes in art expression,” says Connell. “Interventions would be given to the client or patient to eliminate any frustration with the art materials, but not with one’s choice of art topics or themes.” Projects vary, but some of the most common include mask-making, mandalas, self-portraits, tactile artwork and dioramas.

The creation of art can be a cathartic experience in itself. “Creating art releases false perceptions, releases insecurity, depression, and low self-esteem. And once those feelings are released, positive empowering thoughts take their place,” says Comisso. The art that is created by the patient or client can then be used as a springboard for discussion in talk therapy, which can also be facilitated by an art therapist. The therapist helps guide interpretation so that the patient can discover meaning through their art.

The Research

The field of art therapy has been rigorously studied and proven to be a successful tool for the treatment of many conditions.  “Research in the field affirms the therapeutic benefits of artistic self-expression and reflection, within a professional relationship, for individuals who experience illness, trauma, mental health issues, and those seeking personal growth,” says Connell. She points to numerous studies and research that have been conducted in order to show the benefits and effectiveness of the therapy.

In a study published in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association, researchers studied the effectiveness of art therapy in children who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). The results showed that specific exercises performed in the therapy sessions had the effect of increasing attention abilities and decreasing impulsive behavior. This helped the children to gradually improve their skills of decision-making, task completion, growth and developmental level, among others. 

Another study analyzed the effects of art therapy on an entirely different demographic: elderly nursing home residents. The study consisted of eight sessions of a pottery class that twenty nursing home residents participated in. They were being studied for levels of self-esteem, depression, and anxiety, using quantitative scales for evaluation. The results were compared to a control group of residents at the same nursing home who did not participate in the classes. The results showed that those who came into the study with high levels of depression and anxiety and low levels of self-esteem were significantly improved by the end of the study.

For more information about the studies and research of art therapy, check out the American Art Therapy Association’s collection of resources.

Becoming an Art Therapist

Registered art therapists must obtain a master’s degree and specialized training in order to be recognized as such. There are institutions that are given accreditation by bodies approved by the Department of Education.

“Educational requirements include theories of art therapy, counseling, and psychotherapy; ethics and standards of practice; assessment and evaluation; individual, group, and family techniques; human and creative development; multicultural issues; research methods; and practicum experiences in clinical, community, and/or other settings,” explains Connell.

Art therapists can gain recognition from The Art Therapy Credential Board, Inc. on three different levels. Each level of professional practice credentials requires different levels of training and study.

There are other ways to make a career out of the therapeutic power of art besides becoming a trained art therapist. Comisso is not professionally trained in art therapy, but uses her skill and passion to provide a series of workshops for those who seek healing through art.

“I believe art was meant to be an avenue of self-healing. As children, we took to art so easily. We freely painted with no regards for our level of talent and through art we released emotions that had no other avenue of expression,” says Comisso.


Julia Connell

Communications Manager

American Art Therapy Association


Grace Comisso

Healing Artist and Graphic Designer


Alumni of The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, Visual Communications