Art Therapy 101: How It Helps Our Mental Health

Female artist painting

Art is a major part of human existence, and as such, it can influence not just how we see the world but the way we interact with it. It can shape an individual’s personality, no matter if we choose to experience it directly through creation or by simply appreciating it from afar. But did you know that art therapy is widely used to help people heal and enhance their mental health? Today, it involves integrating psychotherapeutic techniques with expressing our creativity through various activities, such as painting, drawing, collage, and similar.

What Is Art Therapy?

We might have guessed before that art could influence the soul and the mind, providing some mental health benefits. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that art therapy was formalized. Adrian Hill, a British artist, coined the term in 1942.

In simple terms, art therapy is a discipline that proposes the use of creative expression to aid mental health and well-being. Art therapists have proposed various definitions of this expressive type of therapy throughout the years. From them, we can identify the general beliefs the therapy is based on.

Art as Therapy

The first one is the belief that creative processes, such as drawing, painting, etc., have the power to heal. It corresponds to the Art as Therapy approach. The very activities we take on while in art therapy ought to be curative, so verbal analysis may not be necessary. They allow us to express ourselves and our imagination spontaneously, thus showing our authentic self through our work. Over time, this should lead to emotional recovery and reparation.

Art Psychotherapy

The second belief corresponds to the Art Psychotherapy approach. It focuses on the products, i.e., the results of the various activities we take part in and their verbal analysis.

Our drawings, paintings, sculptures, and similar work are all means of symbolic communication. They offer insight into our emotions, inner conflicts, and other issues, especially if we aren’t able to express them otherwise. In essence, this approach proposes using art as a medium of communication to help patients deal with issues that are too distressing or emotional to express in words only. Through it, we discover new perceptions and solve problems. Thus, we experience positive changes that help us heal and grow as individuals.

Art therapists could utilize both of these approaches, and at times, that may be necessary too. One inspires the healing process, while the other lets us communicate relevant information through art itself.

Analytic Art Therapy

There is also a third approach, which seemingly isn’t so much in use as the other two — analytic art therapy. Unlike its counterparts, this one focuses on the transference of ideas that happens between the client and the therapist through art. It utilizes analytical psychology and psychoanalysis theories.

What Isn’t Art Therapy

Before it was established as a form of therapy, we used art to express and communicate for thousands of years. Even today, we still utilize it for creative purposes, whether we are professionals or simply trying our hand at hobbies.

In recent years, however, it has become evident that some use the term “art therapy” incorrectly to describe approaches and products for commercial purposes. One particular product that poses a risk in misinterpreting art therapy is the adult coloring book.

Often marketed as art therapy activities, these coloring books may actually blur the line between a mental health profession and a hobby. They make it seem as all we would have to do is paint within the lines to feel better. But art therapy is so much more than merely drawing or painting to express our emotions; it’s the very presence of an art therapist and the relationship we build with them by communicating through our artwork that allows for the healing to commence.

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The Main Benefits of Art Therapy

When implemented correctly, art therapy should (among other things):

  • Help us identify our emotional wellness through self-discovery. By creating art, we could tap into our subconscious and recognize emotions we might not have been aware of.
Woman hiding her emotions
  • Allow for emotional release. If our emotions are too complex and we’re unable to express them with words, this form of therapy would allow us to articulate them through drawings, paintings, doodles, sketches, and other forms of artistic creation.
Cheerful woman laughing with painting
  • Improve our self-management skills so that we can handle our emotions and thoughts and manage our actions.
Dreamy artist with closed eyes sitting in lotus pose in gallery

If we’re in art therapy to come to terms with a physical illness, it should help us examine its impact on us and our life, including how it has changed us and the world around us. In case we’re trying to put an end to substance abuse (drugs or alcohol, for instance), it should also help us hone our problem-solving skills to find other solutions that won’t jeopardize our health.

How Art Therapy Helps

Calm painter holding a color palette and looking glad

The world and life itself may sometimes feel overwhelming and too hectic for us to handle. Fortunately, art therapy could help us process events and gain insight into any issues we may be (sometimes secretly) dealing with.

Since art therapy focuses so much on exploring our emotions and gaining control over them, we can apply it to various disorders and mental health issues. It can help those suffering from (or due to):

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Bereavement and loss

Art therapy could be beneficial for people who have to cope with certain conditions, such as dementia and autism. Children with learning disabilities and behavioral and social problems may be able to benefit from it as well.

Furthermore, it could help people cope with other health problems that can affect their quality of life, such as cancer, and that pose a daily challenge. Mental disorders, such as bipolar disorder, may also be improved. This report from 2014 explains how art therapy (in combination with pharmacotherapy) helped one woman communicate her inner turmoil when she was in great mental distress brought upon by bipolar disorder.

One of its most significant contributions is regarding traumatic experiences (natural disasters or combat, for example). In the case of post-traumatic stress, it could help individuals manage the trauma by giving them the means to develop coping skills. With art therapy, they could learn how to identify and process the symptoms (such as intrusive thoughts at night that keep them awake).

Final Thoughts

Yes, simply engaging in art creation to express our emotions could help with conditions like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. As silly as it may sound to some people, studies show that art therapy could be an interesting way of improving our well-being and mental health. Overall, the results, albeit based on a small number of studies, are encouraging. Remember, though — only a certified art therapist should implement it (and adult coloring books aren’t a reliable resource for it). If necessary, it should be supported by other therapy forms too.