Even though it’s still a young, up-and-coming practice, art therapy is already changing the way therapists and clients approach mental health conversations. What started in psychiatric hospitals in the 1940s has now transformed into a powerful new way of assessing and treating clients who may experience a wide variety of mental health struggles.
Angela Charley, MA, LPC, ATR is a practicing Therapist at Rogers Behavioral Health in Minnesota as a Licensed professional counselor (LPC) with credentials in Art Therapy (ATR).
She wants to help spread the word on how practicing art therapy can be the missing puzzle piece for boosting your mental health!
Check out Angela’s answers to 11 Frequently Asked Questions about art therapy:
1. How would you describe art therapy to someone who’s never heard of it before?
“Art therapy is just like it sounds! It’s a combination of art and therapy. Art therapists are trained artists and clinicians that integrate both worlds together. It’s a unique position where you are engaging in both high-level, cognitive, verbal processing while also knowing when and how to bring art-making into the equation. So it’s really an integrative approach to mental health that focuses on enriching the lives of individuals, families, and communities through art-making and the creative process that comes with that. The art-making parts of the therapy act as a nonverbal way to engage and work through tough mental health conversations. You’re actually creating neural pathways while practicing art therapy – the same way as if you were having a verbal conversation with someone. So it can be a very transformative therapy in that way.”
2. What (and for how long) did you study to become an art therapist? What is that process like?
“I graduated with a 4-year undergraduate degree from the College of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, MN with a Psychology major and Art minor before attending Adler Graduate school in Minnetonka, MN. At Adler I graduated with a dual license in Art Therapy and Clinical Mental Health Counseling (ATR and LPC/LPCC). While enrolled at Adler Graduate School, I learned theories, psychological history, art therapy history, and other foundational courses for mental health and counseling. In those courses we actually got to go through the art therapy process as if we were clients ourselves. So we had the opportunity to practice art therapy directives, explore and create with new materials, and experience firsthand how art therapy can help you connect with yourself on a deeper level. And through that process you learn how to translate that to working successfully with clients in the future. I remember reflecting back on the courses after graduating, and I saw how much better I was able to process and ground myself during such a crazy time of my life. It’s a helpful coping skill that gave me that time to be me – and be a kid again – amidst a time where I was both working full-time and studying full-time.”
3. Who’s a good candidate for art therapy?
“There’s no one candidate or specific criteria for art therapy, and no age restrictions. It’s all about what the client is wanting and whether that can be supported through art therapy. That being said, art therapy is definitely supportive for people experiencing trauma, or actively working through trauma, to neurologically re-wire some of the trauma responses. It’s also an intervention used for clients with anxiety, OCD, depression, etc. Art therapy can be delivered in group or individual settings. So it’s truly a holistic approach that doesn’t have to fit with one diagnosis, but rather the individual’s goals. There are also a multitude of different art experiences, so there’s something for everyone!”
4. What are the different kinds of art therapy?
“Art therapy takes a lot of different forms, but some activities include:
Art Journals/Altered Books
To name a few!”
5. What are the benefits of art therapy?
“Some benefits of art therapy include:
Connecting the mind and body together
Non-verbal skill building and connection-making to personal mental health
When you’re participating in art therapy, you’re making neurological connections and activating both sides of your brain. So it alleviates symptoms of mental health struggles and helps clients come to understand where the emotions come from. You can challenge a lot in one session of art therapy without realizing it, while also relieving anxiety and boosting your mood. Clients with trauma, or going through anything distressing, can use art-making to re-regulate and ground into a new activity that builds their emotional insight. Some clients use art therapy as a way to help make it easier to talk through their mental health struggles, while others might use art therapy to ground themselves while processing.”
6. How long do you need to practice art therapy before experiencing the benefits?
“It depends on where you’re at mentally when you come into it. Someone who is ready for change may progress towards their established goals faster than someone who is still learning more about themselves or hesitant for change. No client has a specific timeline, and art therapists are there to be the client’s supportive resource for understanding the tools they can take with them for the rest of their lives – no matter the amount of time it might take them to start seeing the changes.”
7. What kind of results have you seen with art therapy in patients?
“With some of my younger adolescent clients especially, they use art therapy combined with cognitive therapy to find self expression. They learn how to regulate independently using art-making, and through art therapy, they are able to work on deeper self-expression and identification. For those in a pivotal stage of life – when they’re asking themselves, “who am I?” – art therapy comes in as a great way to process emotions, identity, and begin to work on self expression.”
8. How do you start art-making if you don’t know how? Do you give your clients prompts for something to draw?
“In the beginning when people are starting, it can be an opportunity to just explore the different art materials and get to know your options and preferences. For others, all of those options can be really overwhelming and shut a client down, so I can and do provide prompts or suggestions in those cases. Providing the openness for them to choose fosters a comfortable environment where there can be growth between client and therapist.”
9. How does color come into play with art therapy?
“Depending on the colors different clients use, it may open the door to some revealing conversations. Sometimes clients pick colors subconsciously and I can ask, “why did you pick that color today?” to bring forth some thoughts that the client was having but wasn’t cognitively aware of yet. Other times, clients pick certain colors simply because they like those colors. But the colors they choose do allow for the opportunity to uncover the current feelings/emotions of the client. Color can mean lots of different things to different people, and leads to conversations about self expression.”
10. Is it possible to practice art therapy at home, and if so, how can you do it?
“You can take the practice of art-making home with you, but art therapy is conducted with a licensed professional art therapist who is present to support, guide, and process alongside the client. Art therapy sessions can be done via telehealth, individual sessions, or in a group setting. The tools you learn during art therapy are things you can take home to help with your own self reflection and guidance down the road. However, the deeper processing is done in one-on-one settings with your therapist.”
11. What would you say to skeptics of art therapy?
“It’s not uncommon that people haven’t heard of art therapy, or are skeptical, given that it’s a newer practice from the 1940s and 1950s. It’s still a very young practice. The only way you’re ever going to know if it works for you or not is simply trying it! There are lots of practices that use art therapy where you can try a one-on-one session. And it’s ok if it turns out that it’s just not for you! If you want to understand more, the American Art Therapy Association is a really good tool and resource for learning whether art therapy might be right for you. If you’re willing and curious to give it a try, I recommend it because it’s an experience that you can’t always explain – it has to be felt. And everyone’s experience is going to be different.”
Curious to find an art therapist near you? Click here to use the American Art Therapy Association’s free art therapist locator.