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Did you know that art therapy isn’t a new idea?  According to an article published by the American Art Therapy Association, Inc. via Mount Mary College in Wisconsin, art therapy as a valid profession began as early as the 1940s.  Like many philosophies, the actual practice of art therapy came about by the patients and clients of psychological professionals instead of the other way around.  In the first half of the 20th century, psychiatrists began to look at the artwork their patients were creating.  On the other end of the spectrum, teachers were learning that the artwork their students created on a regular basis was a rather good measure of each student’s social, emotional and cognitive development.  Art therapy was born, and today hundreds of professional art therapists work with a wide range of individuals suffering from myriad injuries, disorders, disabilities and diseases.

What Is Art Therapy?

It is important to understand that art therapy involves more than simply picking up a pencil and drawing a straight line. There is no “artistic talent” required to participate in art therapy, and the end result is focused on an emotional or physical aspect of the artist rather than the final product of the artwork itself. When it comes to drawing or painting, for instance, some art therapy projects might involve simple stick figures and random shapes.  Other art techniques used include creating collages out of magazine clippings or old photographs. It doesn’t matter what medium is used.  The practice of expressing oneself through nonverbal communication – regardless of the simplicity or intricacy of the work – opens communication to parts of the brain that may have been damaged by a stroke or other injury, as reported in a study mentioned in Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association  in 2008. This might mean a physical change in person’s abilities, or might mean a psychological breakthrough to the heart of a problem that has led to mental disorders or substance abuse and addiction.

Who Can Benefit From Art Therapy?

People seek rehabilitation for a variety of reasons, but anyone who finds it too difficult to communicate through the spoken word can benefit from using art as a communication tool.  Others may find the physical act of using a paintbrush or other art instrument a benefit to recreating the fine motor skills they have lost due to severe physical trauma from an accident or violence.  Some clients of art therapy programs might be fighting the debilitating effects of drug and alcohol abuse or addiction.  Still others may be afflicted with diseases that attack the muscles, such as muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis.  Art therapy has also proven beneficial for people dealing with the emotional trauma brought about by all of these types of emotional conditions, as well as other diseases such as breast cancer or HIV/AIDS.

How Does Art Therapy Work?

Art therapy can address different aspects of each of these types of rehabilitation on several distinct levels.   For instance, art therapy provides the clinicians tools they can use to assess their clients’ progress. The progress made in the art expression can help them decide on treatment plans and can even help them to form diagnoses, according to George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

The second aspect concerns the treatment progress of each client.  From a mental health standpoint, the United States government has been using art therapy to help soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan deal with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as traumatic brain injury (TBI). In an article released by the U.S. Department of Defense, a woman named Melissa Walker designed an entire program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.  The healing arts program welcomes returning service men and women into a safe and productive environment that helps them confront their injuries and the ramifications of those injuries.  These particular individuals may be trying to return to active duty, or they may be transitioning to the civilian sector, but they all face the uncertainty of what their life may be like in the future.  With the help of a professional art therapist, the clients can use art to express emotional issues that they may not be ready to discuss in traditional talk therapy sessions.

*The Difference Between Art Class and Art Therapy

Simply put, a traditional art class will teach the student how to create art. There are entire curriculums designed in schools and universities around the world dedicated to teaching people who want to become professional artists the concepts of design, history, influences of the masters and so much more.  The art student may then be prepared to work commercially by creating art for pay, or even creating their own masterpieces that will be remembered in the annals of history.  They might even continue their education to become certified art therapists.  Many of these artists will ultimately place their heart and souls into the works they create, with a solid foundation in the techniques required to be successful.

Art therapy, on the other hand, is a distinct treatment program that focuses more attention on what the client is feeling.  The individuals who study within an art therapy setting are focusing on expressing their innermost feelings more than they are concerned with learning the proper techniques for shading.

What You Can Expect in an Art Therapy Program

Embarking on a new kind of therapy can be a daunting experience.  Understanding what you can expect from engaging in art therapy can make it easier to fully devote yourself to the process.  The following is an outline of what you might expect, although individual therapists and programs may vary from provider to provider.

Like other therapies, when you enroll in an art therapy program, there will be an initial assessment.  You should be prepared to discuss the issues that have brought you to the art therapist, but remember that art therapy is predominantly a non-verbal type of therapy.  You’ll let your therapist get to know you, but the assessment is not a traditional treatment session.

Once you’ve finished your assessment, you’ll be introduced to the various types and styles of art that you may be able to work with during your time with the program.  These styles might include:

  • Sketching
  • Working with clay; sculpting
  • Painting with oils, acrylics or watercolors
  • Photography
  • Graphics or digital arts

Other types of art therapy might include the written word, such as writing essays, playwriting, and even starting novels.  You might be exposed to dancing and movement as a form of art therapy as well.

Generally, you will reveal your creations to a small group of other participants in the program and discuss what the artwork means to you.  You can be as specific as you like, or as general as you like, or you may choose to say nothing at all.  The others, however, will discuss the work and what speaks to them.  This will give you an opportunity to fine-tune your art, focusing as much attention as possible on the individual aspects that speak to your emotional state.  After a while, you’ll have a completed piece of art that expresses the aspects of yourself that you find difficult to discuss through traditional talk therapy.

*What Are Some of the Effects of Art Therapy for Patients?

When an individual suffers from traumatic events, whether those events are physical, psychological or both, there are certain negative effects on an emotional level.  Art therapy addresses these issues on a measurable level and, according to research conducted by the American Art Therapy Association, Inc., has shown to be of great benefit to those suffering from PTSD:

  • Art therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and other mood disorders.
  • Art therapy can help to change behaviors that are counterproductive to the healing process.
  • Art therapy can help clients resolve traumatic memories.
  • Art therapy is a boon to how individuals feel about themselves in regard to their worth and their self-esteem..

Art therapy can be an integral part of an overall rehab experience for many people. Used as a complementary therapy model, there are many facilities that have integrated it into their program curriculums.  It can offer a reprieve from the more strenuous activities associated with the rehabilitative process. To find out more about art therapy or to learn how to enroll in a program in your area, please contact us today.

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