What do you think of when you hear the words “art therapy”? Do you think of a therapist for artists? A psychologist who holds up inkblot images to analyse patients’ personalities or disorders based off of what they see (better known as ‘The Rorschach Test’)? Or perhaps you think of a person who teaches art to children? The above are common fallacies that I have heard firsthand after telling people, “I’m an Art Psychotherapist”.
Although art therapy (also interchangeable with art psychotherapy) has various definitions, its common element includes it being an expressive therapy that uses art and the creative process as a primary mode of communication. This, however, does not explain the therapeutic and psychodynamic aspects of the therapy, rather the simplistic definition that I seem to say as if on autopilot. Who else can relate to having an internal debate about where to begin to explain what art therapy is? I’ve gathered that it’s the lack of a concise definition combining all the multi-layered factors of this therapy that leads to the misconception of it.
I am demystifying five of the most popular misconceptions made by clients, employers and caregivers:
1. Art therapy is just for children.
Art therapy is for all ages. It is adapted to work for children, adolescents, adults, and older people. It ranges across a spectrum of difficulties such as loss, various psychological and/or mental illnesses, learning disabilities, various forms of abuse, family and domestic issues, and much more. Various creative mediums like sand play, sculpting/clay work, collage and storytelling are often overlooked and, instead, thoughts of “painting” or “colouring” fill the notion of art therapy, allowing the assumption that it’s only suitable for younger children.
2. I should know how to draw or paint to participate in art therapy.
Art therapy is not an assessment on your artistic abilities, but an assessment of your approach and engagement in the art process. The engagement with the process can also be developed if it is not present at the beginning stages of therapy. It is helpful if you have an interest in art; however, it is not a requirement.
3. Art therapists just stare at me while I draw.
Some therapists will join in with the art-making process, especially if a client has asked the therapist to become involved. On the other hand, some therapists will sit back and give the client the space he or she prefers. Therapists practice differently, but observation – not staring – is crucial to gain awareness of what is happening within the session.
4. Art therapy is like going to an art class.
First, art therapists are not teachers. This mistake is especially made when running therapy sessions in schools. Generally, in my experience, children think they are being taken out for an art lesson until the idea of “therapy” is established and understood. What helps distinguish therapist and teacher apart, is that the children are able to refer to the therapist by first name instead of formally, as you would with a teacher. The lack of using ‘Miss’ or ‘Mr.’ is to give a sense of equal nature to the client-therapist relationship unlike the hierarchical relationship between teachers and pupils.
Second, art therapists are trained professionals regulated by a professional body. The aim is to support the challenges, and any limitations, caused from mental, physical, behavioural, social, and emotional difficulties. This psychotherapeutic intervention is modified to suit the needs of the individual. The art process helps the individual to consider what the image represents and how it is relative to his or her life.
Last, but not the end of the many differences between art therapy and art class, the therapy sessions are client-led. This means that the clients choose what they want to do in the session. Which medium do they wish to engage in, if at all? What artwork do they want to produce, or not? Unlike an art lesson, there is not an objective to the session and the artwork is not graded. In fact, some sessions may end without having any artwork produced. This leads to the last misconception.
5. You have to make art in every session.
Despite art-making being the primary mode of communication, there is not a requirement that art be made in every session. As mentioned earlier, the session is client-led; therefore, the decision of making art is up to the client. Engaging in the arts is encouraged because word finding could be tough when explaining traumatic or unpleasant experiences. It can also initiate verbal communication for the client, as the image can trigger a memory or the art process can mirror a lived experience.
So here you have it – the most common assumptions that give false ideas about ‘art therapy’. If you’re reading this because you are considering art therapy for yourself, an employer who would like art therapy in your workplace, a parent, carer or friend who thinks art therapy might be beneficial for someone else, or you, too, are an art therapist - this information ascertains that there is more to art therapy than making art in front of a therapist. So let’s steer away from the delusion that we, art therapists, “watch others colour in”.
Karissa Patel is an Art Psychotherapist in private practice, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and an active member of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT). In 2014 she became coordinator for BAAT’s Art Therapy in Education Special Interest Group and recently, she has become the Social Media Ambassador for BAAT and Art Therapy in Education. She is enthusiastic about promoting art therapy and it’s creative properties that aim to enhance emotional wellbeing. She has worked with Older People in an inpatient psychiatric hospital, and currently works in schools with children and adolescents in liaison with Children’s Services. You can get in touch with Karissa via Twitter