Art as therapy - A recovery and rehabilitation tool

Art as therapy - A recovery and rehabilitation tool

For people with substance use disorders or other mental health conditions, expressive arts therapy is a helpful treatment to reduce symptoms.

Healing through the arts is not a new idea, but its use in addiction treatment has begun to gain traction in the past several years. In a typical drug rehab program, a client is asked to do a significant amount of talking. Sometimes the topics are simple and provide a great deal of insight into past behaviors and feelings.

What happens when emotions or past hurts block those words? It may be difficult to open up about certain aspects of your life, particularly if you are now asked to do so without the benefit of drugs or alcohol. Sometimes art therapy can be another way to express those emotions and open an otherwise closed door. This is why building an art therapy treatment plan can be a valuable tool.

Kathryn Dirks - Prison art

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy will appear differently depending on the therapist, the client and the goal of the session. For an art therapy definition, consider that art therapy is the creative process of art-making to improve the mental, physical and emotional well-being of the person.

In an art therapy session, you may be provided with a variety of different art supplies such as paint, colored pencils, charcoal, clay, wire, paper, canvas and cloth. You might then be asked to answer a certain question with your art project. The good news is that there is no right or wrong answer. You may also be asked to simply create a self-portrait or express how you feel with your art.

When you participate in art therapy, you will have guidance from a trained professional. This is a different kind of treatment than the traditional method of sitting around in a circle and telling others how you currently “feel.” Since emotions can be volatile in early recovery, art therapy provides a way to access and express feelings nonverbally.

The Exile - Prison art as therapy
Prison art as therapy

History of Art Therapy

Established and regulated art therapy in the U.S. is more of a recent phenomenon. The history of art therapy is long, though, with the origins of art therapy date back to early ancestors of humans.

Since humans dwelled in caves more than 40,000 years ago, they saw a benefit to art. Whether it was to communicate, document or express themselves, art was a part of their lives.

Though a powerful force in the lives of many, art therapy did not emerge as a way to address psychological issues until the 1940s. The practice began in Europe before spreading to the U.S. The first art therapy sessions were used for people with physical health conditions like tuberculosis before being applied to mental institutions.

Early art therapists viewed art as a way for the client to communicate their thoughts and feelings in a safe and protected way. Some believe art to be an expression of the unconscious, which results in symbolic imagery that should be analyzed and interpreted by the therapist.

Types of Art Therapy

Like art itself, the types of art therapy are virtually limitless. Since expressive art therapy provides tremendous freedoms to the clients, the therapy can take many forms. It is common for art therapy activities to include:

  • Painting
  • Sculpting
  • Drawing or coloring
  • Making or listening to music
  • Dancing and moving to music
  • Creating collages or mosaics
  • Weaving and stitching

If an activity is even remotely artistic, a trained therapist could use it as an art therapy exercise.

The role of the therapist will vary as well. At times, the therapist will offer specific instructions they expect the client to follow and complete during the session. In other circumstances, the therapist will provide no instructions while allowing the client to explore the space to engage in any form of art they find interesting at the time.

What to Expect in Art Therapy

Each person’s experience with art therapy will be unique, but a typical art therapy session may include:

  • A brief check-in occurs to discuss and process significant events, thoughts or feelings from the last week.
  • A prompt is given from the therapist to either engage in unstructured art or to complete an assignment based on a particular prompt.
  • The client works on their art while the therapist is observing their process; the therapist can participate in the process or create their own art as a model.
  • The therapist may work to interpret the work created by the client when completed, or they will focus on encouraging the client’s artistic process without the need to critique or judge the final product.
  • Before the session concludes, the therapist and client discuss the impact of the art and plan for the next session.


Prison art as therapy

Uses for Art Therapy

The practice of art therapy can be instrumental in the treatment of many physical and mental health conditions like:

  • High stress
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Substance use disorders
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Grief
  • Physical disabilities
  • Acute or chronic diseases like diabetes and cancer

How Art Therapy Works

Putting the process of art therapy into words is challenging because the treatment is somewhat mysterious. The techniques used in art therapy help to unlock and uncover a person’s full potential. It can help them put to rest the issues from the past and shift focus to the present and future.

Art therapists use their training to facilitate healing with the assistance of art. They understand how art can divulge information the client cannot express verbally.

Not all treatments will use art therapy exclusively. Since the practice is flexible, a client can use art therapy as a segment of their treatment and transition to other techniques as symptoms dictate.

The Benefits of Art Therapy

Like other forms of treatment, art therapy will not be an effective tool for all people and all problems. With that being the case, art therapy is a wonderfully effective option that offers many benefits.

The effectiveness of art therapy varies as not everyone who attends treatment finds it easy to express themselves in words. Some will not have the ability to communicate verbally. When one has access to art therapy, there is another way. This type of treatment can help access emotions, develop skills for self-awareness, and allow for greater introspection.

Aspects that add to the benefits and effectiveness of art therapy are the goals and objectives set out by the client and therapist.

One of the greatest benefits of art therapy is that it can penetrate a person’s psyche on a subconscious level. A discussion in the Journal of the American Art Therapy Association points out that many people who seek treatment are only hoping to change their behavior. Instead, art therapy could encourage patients to examine the damage done by their condition and make a lasting change.

Art Therapy in Addiction and Mental Health Treatment

While there have not been many studies related to art therapy and addiction, there have been a few. One study published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that both art and music therapy were beneficial in addiction treatment when they were used to address unique patient needs.

Even if art therapy does not directly address the addiction, it can help the recovery by targeting unwanted effects of addiction such as:

  • High stress
  • Poor communication
  • Low self-esteem
  • Frustration, anger and sadness

Left untreated, these unwanted effects can result in a relapse and return to substance use. Anyone interested in managing their addiction and prolonging their recovery should explore a program with access to art therapy and other helpful types of addiction treatment.

Prison art as therapy

Thanks to the Recovery Village for the enlightening article. 

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