Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/10/2022
There are many types of therapy out there. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), humanistic therapy, interpersonal therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy — the list goes on, and the names only get more complicated. But one type of therapy you may not have heard of is art therapy.
Yes, it’s a real thing — and, for some people, it’s a very effective way to lower anxiety, express themselves and cope with real-world issues and past experiences.
But what is art therapy? Is it useful? What can it help treat? What does it involve?
We get it — you have many questions. Hopefully, here are some answers.
Art therapy started to gain traction as a form of treatment in the 1940s, respectively.
In art therapy, artistic creativity is used as a way to express emotions and heal. The thinking is that, through art, people can explore feelings, lower anxiety, boost self-awareness and more.
Practitioners in art therapy tend to be trained in both art and in therapy. But if you’re thinking art therapy is the same as going to a painting class, you’re wrong. Art therapy may center around a creative pursuit, but it’s rooted in psychological techniques.
Art therapists can be found working in hospitals, senior centers, psychiatric facilities, rehabs and crisis centers and in private practice.
In art therapy, people may draw, paint, work with clay or engage in some other form of artistic expression — including listening to or playing music, dancing, storytelling or writing poetry.
It’s believed that art therapy can help people feel a sense of doing something for themselves, it provides a non-intimidating way to look at emotions and can help those with mental illnesses see themselves as more than their illness.
First, you should know that you do not have to have a diagnosable condition to try art therapy. That said, there are certain conditions and mental health disorders that art therapy is particularly recognized as being able to help with.
It’s thought that art therapy can help people with anxiety disorders, depressive disorders, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, schizophrenia and autism.
Art therapy may also be helpful for those dealing with addiction and substance abuse issues.
People with certain medical conditions — things like cancer, epilepsy, other chronic illnesses and physical challenges, for instance — may also benefit from this modality.
With any of these, art therapy is often not the only treatment used. For example, if you are navigating depression, a healthcare professional may recommend antidepressants and CBT, along with art therapy as a supplemental treatment.
There’s no way to definitively say that art therapy is effective for everyone and for all things. Really, it would be hard to say that about any form of treatment.
That said, there is some scientific evidence that art therapy can help with certain conditions.
One review of art therapy used to treat addicts found that, when used in conjunction with a 12-step program, it positively impacted those with substance issues.
Art therapy has also been found to be a good treatment to help people cope with daily stress and burnout.
Other research looked at art therapy for those with conditions like anxiety, depression and more. It suggests that it may help, but is often underutilized.
One thing to know: there has been no systematic review that provides enough evidence to say that art therapy absolutely helps with mental health conditions in adults, and much more research is needed before we can even begin to say we have a definitive answer.
The only systematic narrative review we could find looked at how art therapy may help children. Researchers analyzed data from 37 studies and found that art therapy had a positive effect on the psychosocial needs of children.
Our point is that while the data is limited, the results backing the efficacy of art therapy are definitively promising.
Interested in trying something like art or music therapy? When you look for a practitioner, you want to focus on people who hold a master’s degree or above in art therapy.
Not sure how to go about finding a therapist? These ideas can help guide you:
Use the Art Therapist Locator from the American Art Therapy Association. You can search by location and get info like what type of degree someone has and what they specialize in.
Another database that may be helpful to search is the one hosted by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. They have a list of over 5,000 licensed professionals.
If you see another type of therapy professional (such as someone who specializes in CBT), consider asking if they know any art therapist who would be a good match for you. Since they know you well, they may better be able to suggest someone who uses a creative process that will work for your needs.
Once you find someone you think may be a good fit for you, try to set up an introductory phone call or meeting. Use the time to ask them any questions that will help you suss out if they’re a good fit for you.
For instance, you may find it useful to ask them about their credentials, what their creative process is like, how they measure the effectiveness of art therapy and more.
You can also use the time to discuss what you're hoping this type of therapy will help you accomplish.
For example, perhaps you hope it will help you develop better social skills or you’re struggling to navigate a mental illness or you feel stressed in a variety of settings and want to explore why.
Being up front from the beginning can help you get the most out of art therapy services, allowing you to start the healing process as soon as possible.
Art therapy is a therapeutic process that centers around a person engaging in a creative endeavor as a way of finding some sort of healing or other therapeutic purpose.
Music therapy also falls under art therapy. Other things people may do in art therapy include drawing, painting, writing or more.
It’s thought that by taking part in expressive arts therapy, someone can more fully explore their emotions. In turn, this can help with psychological issues or mental health conditions and can improve someone’s quality of life.
When looking for a practitioner, it’s important to find a licensed or registered art therapist. If you’re still unsure whether art therapy could help you, it may be beneficial to speak with a mental health professional more about the issues you’re seeking to resolve and what the best way to treat them may be.