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Art Therapy – an Overview of the Who, What and Why

art therapy, paints brushes

Art therapy isn’t a Sunday school, nor an arts and crafts lesson for a budding hobbyist. An art therapist is a healthcare professional that is trained in both art and therapy with a master’s degree and credentials to practice as a therapist.  A qualified art therapist can help clients to interpret non-verbal messages, symbols and metaphors often found through the exploration of artistic expression. These insights are used to build a clearer understanding of a person’s behaviors and feelings to address and resolve underlying issues.


This is a therapeutic process – it is not about the artistic value of the work produced but the assessment of the body of work and how the client works in relation to their mental health.

The theory is that a person’s creative choices can often reflect their inner thoughts and mental wellbeing. Often people can feel more comfortable expressing themselves and their feelings through creative expression than by speaking of their thoughts directly. Art therapy isn’t for everyone but many people have claimed to have benefited from it. Sessions can be one-to-one, for a couple, a family or a group.

Who Uses Art Therapy?

Art therapy has the potential to help people of all ages, suffering from an array of issues. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy can be used to help people experiencing developmental, educational, medical, social or psychological impairment. Sessions can be used to explore emotions, get to the root causes of self-esteem issues, to tackle anxiety, stress and depression, to address trauma and grief, and to uncover and manage personality disorders.  

For example, art therapy may be used to support someone going through dramatic changes and a time of crisis in their life such as being diagnosed with cancer, or to help people with ongoing traumas that require a process of rehabilitation like a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Art therapy can offer complementary treatment for the following issues:  

●      Psychological symptoms associated with medical issues

●      Depression

●      Eating disorders

●      Emotional difficulties

●      Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

●      Psychosocial issues

●      Stress

●      Relationship problems

●      Anxiety

●      Children with learning difficulties

●      Overcoming a traumatic event


The goal is to improve a person’s mental well-being, to find coping mechanisms and to aid or restore their ability to function in the way they wish to in their everyday life. 

The Benefits of Art Therapy

It can be difficult to determine the full benefits of art therapy and it’s important to note that it doesn’t suit everyone, nor is it suitable for aiding everything. From the list in the previous passage, I have highlighted a few to show what benefits have been reflected through current, credible research. 


1) Autistic Children

A 2022 study published in the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, found that therapy practitioners using art interventions can help children with autism gain perspectives and support social learning with significant improvements through a program of sessions.  

2) People with Depression and Anxiety

Research suggests that art therapy can be a complementary treatment for people suffering from mental disorders such as depression and anxiety. This type of therapy can help people to share their feelings, views and open up about difficult experiences. Sessions can also provide medical specialists with an extra tool for diagnosing patients. 


3) Dementia Sufferers

There have been advances in art therapy for people suffering from dementia. Although people with dementia struggle to verbalize thinking to express their feelings, they still retain basic visual and motor skills. Case studies have shown that art therapy sessions have the ability to engage attention, stimulate cognition, improve neuropsychiatric symptoms, promote communication and positive social behavior, whilst boosting self-esteem and providing pleasure.


If art therapy isn’t for you there are other forms of creative therapy offered by specialists centering around music, dance, drama and writing.

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