REVIEW article

Art therapy: a complementary treatment for mental disorders.

\r\nJingxuan Hu

  • 1 College of Creative Design, Shenzhen Technology University, Shenzhen, China
  • 2 The Fourth Clinical Medical College of Guangzhou University of Chinese Medicine, Shenzhen, China
  • 3 Institute of Biomedical and Health Engineering, Shenzhen Institutes of Advanced Technology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shenzhen, China

Art therapy, as a non-pharmacological medical complementary and alternative therapy, has been used as one of medical interventions with good clinical effects on mental disorders. However, systematically reviewed in detail in clinical situations is lacking. Here, we searched on PubMed for art therapy in an attempt to explore its theoretical basis, clinical applications, and future perspectives to summary its global pictures. Since drawings and paintings have been historically recognized as a useful part of therapeutic processes in art therapy, we focused on studies of art therapy which mainly includes painting and drawing as media. As a result, a total of 413 literature were identified. After carefully reading full articles, we found that art therapy has been gradually and successfully used for patients with mental disorders with positive outcomes, mainly reducing suffering from mental symptoms. These disorders mainly include depression disorders and anxiety, cognitive impairment and dementias, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and autism. These findings suggest that art therapy can not only be served as an useful therapeutic method to assist patients to open up and share their feelings, views, and experiences, but also as an auxiliary treatment for diagnosing diseases to help medical specialists obtain complementary information different from conventional tests. We humbly believe that art therapy has great potential in clinical applications on mental disorders to be further explored.


Mental disorders constitute a huge social and economic burden for health care systems worldwide ( Zschucke et al., 2013 ; Kenbubpha et al., 2018 ). In China, the lifetime prevalence of mental disorders was 24.20%, and 1-month prevalence of mental disorders was 14.27% ( Xu et al., 2017 ). The situation is more severely in other countries, especially for developing ones. Given the large numbers of people in need and the humanitarian imperative to reduce suffering, there is an urgent need to implement scalable mental health interventions to address this burden. While pharmacological treatment is the first choice for mental disorders to alleviate the major symptoms, many antipsychotics contribute to poor quality of life and debilitating adverse effects. Therefore, clinicians have turned toward to complementary treatments, such as art therapy in addressing the health needs of patients more than half a century ago.

Art therapy, is defined by the British Association of Art Therapists as: “a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Clients referred to art therapists are not required to have experience or skills in the arts. The art therapist’s primary concern is not to make an esthetic or diagnostic assessment of the client’s image. The overall goal of its practitioners is to enable clients to change and grow on a personal level through the use of artistic materials in a safe and convenient environment” ( British Association of Art Therapists, 2015 ), whereas as: “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psycho-therapeutic relationship” ( American Art Therapy Association, 2018 ) according to the American Art Association. It has gradually become a well-known form of spiritual support and complementary therapy ( Faller and Schmidt, 2004 ; Nainis et al., 2006 ). During the therapy, art therapists can utilize many different art materials as media (i.e., visual art, painting, drawing, music, dance, drama, and writing) ( Deshmukh et al., 2018 ; Chiang et al., 2019 ). Among them, drawings and paintings have been historically recognized as the most useful part of therapeutic processes within psychiatric and psychological specialties ( British Association of Art Therapists, 2015 ). Moreover, many other art forms gradually fall under the prevue of their own professions (e.g., music therapy, dance/movement therapy, and drama therapy) ( Deshmukh et al., 2018 ). Thus, we excluded these studies and only focused on studies of art therapy which mainly includes painting and drawing as media. Specifically, it focuses on capturing psychodynamic processes by means of “inner pictures,” which become visible by the creative process ( Steinbauer et al., 1999 ). These pictures reflect the psychopathology of different psychiatric disorders and even their corresponding therapeutic process based on specific rules and criterion ( Steinbauer and Taucher, 2001 ). It has been gradually recognized and used as an alternative treatment for therapeutic processes within psychiatric and psychological specialties, as well as medical and neurology-based scientific audiences ( Burton, 2009 ).

The development of art therapy comes partly from the artistic expression of the belief in unspoken things, and partly from the clinical work of art therapists in the medical setting with various groups of patients ( Malchiodi, 2013 ). It is defined as the application of artistic expressions and images to individuals who are physically ill, undergoing invasive medical procedures, such as surgery or chemotherapy for clinical usage ( Bar-Sela et al., 2007 ; Forzoni et al., 2010 ; Liebmann and Weston, 2015 ). The American Art Therapy Association describes its main functions as improving cognitive and sensorimotor functions, fostering self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivating emotional resilience, promoting insight, enhancing social skills, reducing and resolving conflicts and distress, and promoting societal and ecological changes ( American Art Therapy Association, 2018 ).

However, despite the above advantages, published systematically review on this topic is lacking. Therefore, this review aims to explore its clinical applications and future perspectives to summary its global pictures, so as to provide more clinical treatment options and research directions for therapists and researchers.

Publications of Art Therapy

The literatures about “art therapy” published from January 2006 to December 2020 were searched in the PubMed database. The following topics were used: Title/Abstract = “art therapy,” Indexes Timespan = 2006–2020.

A total of 652 records were found. Then, we manually screened out the literatures that contained the word “art” but was not relevant with the subject of this study, such as state of the art therapy, antiretroviral therapy (ART), and assisted reproductive technology (ART). Finally, 479 records about art therapy were identified. Since we aimed to focus on art therapy included painting and drawing as major media, we screened out literatures deeper, and identified 413 (84%) literatures involved in painting and drawing ( Figure 1 ).

Figure 1. Number of publications about art therapy.

As we can see, the number of literature about art therapy is increasing slowly in the last 15 years, reaching a peak in 2020. This indicates that more effort was made on this topic in recent years ( Figure 1 ).

Overview of Art Therapy

As defined by the British Association of Art Therapists, art therapy is a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication. Based on above literature, several highlights need to be summarized. (1) The main media of art therapy include painting, drawing, music, drama, dance, drama, and writing ( Chiang et al., 2019 ). (2) Main contents of painting and drawing include blind drawing, spiral drawing, drawing moods and self-portraits ( Legrand et al., 2017 ; Abbing et al., 2018 ; Papangelo et al., 2020 ). (3) Art therapy is mainly used for cancer, depression and anxiety, autism, dementia and cognitive impairment, as these patients are reluctant to express themselves in words ( Attard and Larkin, 2016 ; Deshmukh et al., 2018 ; Chiang et al., 2019 ). It plays an important role in facilitating engagement when direct verbal interaction becomes difficult, and provides a safe and indirect way to connect oneself with others ( Papangelo et al., 2020 ). Moreover, we found that art therapy has been gradually and successfully used for patients with mental disorders with positive outcomes, mainly reducing suffering from mental symptoms. These findings suggest that art therapy can not only be served as an useful therapeutic method to assist patients to open up and share their feelings, views, and experiences, but also as an auxiliary treatment for diagnosing diseases to help medical specialists obtain complementary information different from conventional tests.

Art Therapy for Mental Disorders

Based on the 413 searched literatures, we further limited them to mental disorders using the following key words, respectively: Depression OR anxiety OR Cognitive impairment OR dementia OR Alzheimer’s disease OR Autism OR Schizophrenia OR mental disorder. As a result, a total of 23 studies (5%) ( Table 1 ) were included and classified after reading the abstract and the full text carefully. These studies include 9 articles on depression and anxiety, 4 articles on cognitive impairment and dementia, 3 articles on Alzheimer’s disease, 3 articles on autism, and 4 articles on schizophrenia. In addition to the English literature, in fact, some Chinese literatures also described the application of art therapy in mental diseases, which were not listed but referred to in the following specific literatures.

Table 1. Studies of art therapy in mental diseases.

Depression Disorders and Anxiety

Depression and anxiety disorders are highly prevalent, affecting individuals, their families and the individual’s role in society ( Birgitta et al., 2018 ). Depression is a disabling and costly condition associated with a significant reduction in quality of life, medical comorbidities and mortality ( Demyttenaere et al., 2004 ; Whiteford et al., 2013 ; Cuijpers et al., 2014 ). Anxiety is associated with lower quality of life and negative effects on psychosocial functioning ( Cramer et al., 2005 ). Medication is the most commonly used effective way to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety. However, nonadherence are crucial shortcomings in using antidepressant to treat depression and anxiety ( van Geffen et al., 2007 ; Nielsen et al., 2019 ).

In recent years, many studies have shown that art therapy plays a significant role in alleviating depression symptoms and anxiety. Gussak (2007) performed an observational survey about populations in prison of northern Florida and identified that art therapy significantly reduces depressive symptoms. Similarly, a randomized, controlled, and single-blind study about art therapy for depression with the elderly showed that painting as an adjuvant treatment for depression can reduce depressive and anxiety symptoms ( Ciasca et al., 2018 ). In addition, art therapy is also widely used among students, and several studies ( Runde, 2008 ; Zhenhai and Yunhua, 2011 ) have shown that art therapy also significantly reduces depressive symptoms in students. For example, Wang et al. (2011) conducted group painting therapy on 30 patients with depression for 3 months, and found that painting therapy could promote their social function recovery, improve their social adaptability and quality of life. Another randomized clinical trial also showed that it could decrease mean anxiety scores in the 3–12 year painting group ( Forouzandeh et al., 2020 ).

Studies have shown that distress, including anxiety and depression, is related to poorer health-related quality of life and satisfaction to medical services ( Hamer et al., 2009 ). Painting can be employed to express patients’ anxiety and fear, vent negative emotions by applying projection, thereby significantly improve the mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety of cancer patients. A number of studies ( Bar-Sela et al., 2007 ; Thyme et al., 2009 ; Lin et al., 2012 ; Abdulah and Abdulla, 2018 ) showed that art therapy for cancer patients could enhance the vitality of patients and participation in social activities, significantly reduce depression, anxiety, and reduce stressful feelings. Importantly, even in the follow-up period, art therapy still has a lasting effect on cancer patients ( Thyme et al., 2009 ). Interestingly, art therapy based on famous painting appreciation could also significantly reduce anxiety and depression associated with cancer ( Lee et al., 2017 ). Among cancer patients treated in outpatient health care, art therapy also plays an important role in alleviating their physical symptoms and mental health ( Götze et al., 2009 ). Therefore, art therapy as an auxiliary treatment of cancer is of great value in improving quality of life.

Overall, art painting therapy permits patients to express themselves in a manner acceptable to the inside and outside culture, thereby diminishing depressed and anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive Impairment, and Dementia

Dementia, a progressive clinical syndrome, is characterized by widespread cognitive impairment in memory, thinking, behavior, emotion and performance, leading to worse daily living ( Deshmukh et al., 2018 ). According to the Alzheimer’s Disease International 2015, there is 46.8 million people suffered from dementia, and numbers almost doubling every 20 years, rising to 131.5 million by 2050. Although art therapy has been used as an alternative treatment for the dementia for long time, the positive effects of painting therapy on cognitive function remain largely unknown. One intervention assigned older adults patients with dementia to a group-based art therapy (including painting) observed significant improvements in the clock drawing test ( Pike, 2013 ), whereas two other randomized controlled trials ( Hattori et al., 2011 ; Rusted et al., 2016 ) on patients with dementia have failed to obtain significant cognitive improvement in the painting group. Moreover, a cochrane systematic review ( Deshmukh et al., 2018 ) included two clinical studies of art therapy for dementia revealed that there is no sufficient evidence about the efficacy of art therapy for dementia. This may be because patients with severely cognitive impairment, who was unable to accurately remember or assess their own behavior or mental state, might lose the ability to enjoy the benefits of art therapy.

In summary, we should intervene earlier in patients with mild cognitive impairment, an intermediate stage between normal aging and dementia, in order to prevent further transformation into dementia. To date, mild cognitive impairment is drawing much attention to the importance of painting intervening at this stage in order to alter the course of subsequent cognitive decline as soon as possible ( Petersen et al., 2014 ). Recently, a randomized controlled trial ( Yu et al., 2021 ) showed significant relationship between improvement immediate memory/working memory span and increased cortical thickness in right middle frontal gyrus in the painting art group. With the long-term cognitive stimulation and engagement from multiple sessions of painting therapy, it is likely that painting therapy could lead to enhanced cognitive functioning for these patients.

Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a sub-type of dementia, which is usually associated with chronic pain. Previous studies suggested that art therapy could be used as a complementary treatment to relief pain for these patients since medication might induce severely side effects. In a multicenter randomized controlled trial, 28 mild AD patients showed significant pain reduction, reduced anxiety, improved quality of life, improved digit span, and inhibitory processes, as well as reduced depression symptoms after 12-week painting ( Pongan et al., 2017 ; Alvarenga et al., 2018 ). Further study also suggested that individual therapy rather than group therapy could be more optimal since neuroticism can decrease efficacy of painting intervention on pain in patients with mild AD. In addition to release chronic pain, art therapy has been reported to show positive effects on cognitive and psychological symptoms in patients with mild AD. For example, a controlled study revealed significant improvement in the apathy scale and quality of life after 12 weeks of painting treatment mainly including color abstract patterns with pastel crayons or water-based paint ( Hattori et al., 2011 ). Another study also revealed that AD patients showed improvement in facial expression, discourse content and mood after 3-weeks painting intervention ( Narme et al., 2012 ).


Schizophrenia is a complex functional psychotic mental illness that affects about 1% of the population at some point in their life ( Kolliakou et al., 2011 ). Not only do sufferers experience “positive” symptoms such as hallucinations, delusions, but also experience negative symptoms such as varying degrees of anhedonia and asociality, impaired working memory and attention, poverty of speech, and lack of motivation ( Andreasen and Olsen, 1982 ). Many patients with schizophrenia remain symptomatic despite pharmacotherapy, and even attempts to suicide with a rate of 10 to 50% ( De Sousa et al., 2020 ). For these patients, art therapy is highly recommended to process emotional, cognitive and psychotic experiences to release symptoms. Indeed, many forms of art therapy have been successfully used in schizophrenia, whether and how painting may interfere with psychopathology to release symptoms remains largely unknown.

A recent review including 20 studies overall was performed to summary findings, however, concluded that it is not clear whether art therapy leads to clinical improvement in schizophrenia with low ( Ruiz et al., 2017 ). Anyway, many randomized clinical trials reported positive outcomes. For example, Richardson et al. (2007) conducted painting therapy for six months in patients with chronic schizophrenia and found that art therapy had a positive effect on negative symptoms. Teglbjaerg (2011) examined experience of each patient using interviews and written evaluations before and after painting therapy and at a 1-year follow-up and found that group painting therapy in patients with schizophrenia could not only reduce psychotic symptoms, but also boost self-esteem and improve social function.

What’s more, the characteristics of the painting can also be used to judge the health condition in patients with schizophrenia. For example, Hongxia et al. (2013) explored the correlation between psychological health condition and characteristics of House-Tree-Person tests for patients with schizophrenia, and showed that the detail characteristic of the test results can be used to judge the patient’s anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive symptoms.

Most importantly, several other studies showed that drug plus painting therapy significantly enhanced patient compliance and self-cognition than drug therapy alone in patients with schizophrenia ( Hongyan and JinJie, 2010 ; Min, 2010 ).

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a heterogeneous neurodevelopmental syndrome with no unified pathological or neurobiological etiology, which is characterized by difficulties in social interaction, communication problems, and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors ( Geschwind and Levitt, 2007 ).

Art therapy is a form of expression that opens the door to communication without verbal interaction. It provides therapists with the opportunity to interact one-on-one with individuals with autism, and make broad connections in a more comfortable and effective way ( Babaei et al., 2020 ). Emery (2004) did a case study about a 6-year-old boy diagnosed with autism and found that art therapy is of great value to the development, growth and communication skills of the boy. Recently, one study ( Jalambadani, 2020 ) using 40 children with ASD participating in painting therapy showed that painting therapy had a significant improvement in the social interactions, adaptive behaviors and emotions. Therefore, encouraging children with ASD to express their experience by using nonverbal expressions is crucial to their development. Evans and Dubowski (2001) believed that creating images on paper could help children express their internal images, thereby enhance their imagination and abstract thinking. Painting can also help autistic children express and vent negative emotions and thereby bring positive emotional experience and promote their self-consciousness ( Martin, 2009 ). According to two studies ( Wen and Zhaoming, 2009 ; Jianhua and Xiaolu, 2013 ) in China, Art therapy could also improve the language and communication skills, cognitive and behavioral performance of children with ASD.

Moreover, art therapy could be used to investigate the relationship between cognitive processes and imagination in children with ASD. One study ( Wen and Zhaoming, 2009 ; Jianhua and Xiaolu, 2013 ) suggested that children with ASD apply a unique cognitive strategy in imaginative drawing. Another study ( Low et al., 2009 ) examined the cognitive underpinnings of spontaneous imagination in children with ASD and showed that ASD group lacks imagination, generative ability, planning ability and good consistency in their drawings. In addition, several studies ( Leevers and Harris, 1998 ; Craig and Baron-Cohen, 1999 ; Craig et al., 2001 ) have been performed to investigate imagination and creativity of autism via drawing tasks, and showed impairments of autism in imagination and creativity via drawing tasks.

In a word, art therapy plays a significant role in children with ASD, not only as a method of treatment, but also in understanding and investigating patients’ problems.

Other Applications

In addition to the above mentioned diseases, art therapy has also been adopted in other applications. Dysarthia is a common sequela of cerebral palsy (CP), which directly affects children’s language intelligibility and psycho-social adjustment. Speech therapy does not always help CP children to speak more intelligibly. Interestingly, the art therapy can significantly improve the language intelligibility and their social skills for children with CP ( Wilk et al., 2010 ).

In brief, these studies suggest that art therapy is meaningful and accepted by both patients and therapists. Most often, art therapy could strengthen patient’s emotional expression, self-esteem, and self-awareness. However, our findings are based on relatively small samples and few good-quality qualitative studies, and require cautious interpretation.

The Application Prospects of Art Therapy

With the development of modern medical technology, life expectancy is also increasing. At the same time, it also brings some side effects and psychological problems during the treatment process, especially for patients with mental illness. Therefore, there is an increasing demand for finding appropriate complementary therapies to improve life quality of patients and psychological health. Art therapy is primarily offered as individual art therapy, in this review, we found that art therapy was most commonly used for depression and anxiety.

Based on the above findings, art therapy, as a non-verbal psychotherapy method, not only serves as an auxiliary tool for diagnosing diseases, which helps medical specialists obtain much information that is difficult to gain from conventional tests, judge the severity and progression of diseases, and understand patients’ psychological state from painting characteristics, but also is an useful therapeutic method, which helps patients open up and share their feelings, views, and experiences. Additionally, the implementation of art therapy is not limited by age, language, diseases or environment, and is easy to be accepted by patients.

Art therapy in hospitals and clinical settings could be very helpful to aid treatment and therapy, and to enhance communications between patients and on-site medical staffs in a non-verbal way. Moreover, art therapy could be more effective when combined with other forms of therapy such as music, dance and other sensory stimuli.

The medical mechanism underlying art therapy using painting as the medium for intervention remains largely unclear in the literature ( Salmon, 1993 ; Broadbent et al., 2004 ; Guillemin, 2004 ), and the evidence for effectiveness is insufficient ( Mirabella, 2015 ). Although a number of studies have shown that art therapy could improve the quality of life and mental health of patients, standard and rigorous clinical trials with large samples are still lacking. Moreover, the long-term effect is yet to be assessed due to the lack of follow-up assessment of art therapy.

In some cases, art therapy using painting as the medium may be difficult to be implemented in hospitals, due to medical and health regulations (may be partly due to potential of messes, lack of sink and cleaning space for proper disposal of paints, storage of paints, and toxins of allergens in the paint), insufficient space for the artwork to dry without getting in the way or getting damaged, and negative medical settings and family environments. Nevertheless, these difficulties can be overcome due to great benefits of the art therapy. We thus humbly believe that art therapy has great potential for mental disorders.

In the future, art therapy may be more thoroughly investigated in the following directions. First, more high-quality clinical trials should be carried out to gain more reliable and rigorous evidence. Second, the evaluation methods for the effectiveness of art therapy need to be as diverse as possible. It is necessary for the investigation to include not only subjective scale evaluations, but also objective means such as brain imaging and hematological examinations to be more convincing. Third, it will be helpful to specify the details of the art therapy and patients for objective comparisons, including types of diseases, painting methods, required qualifications of the therapist to perform the art therapy, and the theoretical basis and mechanism of the therapy. This practice should be continuously promoted in both hospitals and communities. Fourth, guidelines about art therapy should be gradually formed on the basis of accumulated evidence. Finally, mechanism of art therapy should be further investigated in a variety of ways, such as at the neurological, cellular, and molecular levels.

Author Contributions

JH designed the whole study, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript. JZ searched for selected the studies. LH participated in the interpretation of data. HY and JX offered good suggestions. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

This study was financially supported by the National Key R&D Program of China (2019YFC1712200), International standards research on clinical research and service of Acupuncture-Moxibustion (2019YFC1712205), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (62006220), and Shenzhen Science and Technology Research Program (No. JCYJ20200109114816594).

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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Papangelo, P., Pinzino, M., Pelagatti, S., Fabbri-Destro, M., and Narzisi, A. (2020). Human figure drawings in children with autism spectrum disorders: a possible window on the inner or the outer world. Brain Sci. 10:398. doi: 10.3390/brainsci10060398

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Keywords : painting, art therapy, mental disorders, clinical applications, medical interventions

Citation: Hu J, Zhang J, Hu L, Yu H and Xu J (2021) Art Therapy: A Complementary Treatment for Mental Disorders. Front. Psychol. 12:686005. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.686005

Received: 26 March 2021; Accepted: 28 July 2021; Published: 12 August 2021.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2021 Hu, Zhang, Hu, Yu and Xu. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Jinping Xu, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

Samoon Ahmad M.D.

What Is Art Therapy?

Understand arts efficacy and place in therapy..

Posted April 9, 2024 | Reviewed by Ray Parker

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  • Art therapy is often coupled with psychotherapy as part of an integrative approach to therapy.
  • Art can provide patients who struggle to verbalize trauma or emotions with alternative means of communication.
  • Studies have found that art therapy can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression in some populations.

Art therapy is defined by the American Art Therapy Association as utilizing “active art-making, the creative process, and applied psychological theory—within a psychotherapeutic relationship—to enrich the lives of individuals, families, and communities.” Often practiced in tandem with psychotherapy , art therapy is nonpharmacological and can be used as a medical intervention for mental disorders. Art therapy is an integrative practice, as it encourages alternative methods of communication and expression. In doing so, art therapy is also capable of helping “ to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience , promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.” There are many different ways of participating in art therapy, such as dance movement psychotherapy, music therapy, and drawing, painting, and craft therapy.

The History of Art Therapy

For most of human history, art has been an important method of communicating events, ideas, and stories. Closely connected to the expression of emotions, the term “art therapy” first emerged in 1942 when patients suffering from tuberculosis found freedom through drawing and painting. Art therapy practices soon moved into the mental health realm with the foundation of the British Association of Art Therapists in 1964. As art therapy gained traction around the world, it was implemented alongside child psychotherapy. The creation of art helped children express their feelings despite their “ underdeveloped or limited vocabulary .” It quickly became a treatment for patients with trauma , grief , anxiety , and a range of other mental health disorders.

The Efficacy of Art Therapy

In 2022, a report was produced by the Australian, New Zealand, and Asian Creative Arts Therapies Association called The Proven Efficacy of Creative Arts Therapies: What the Literature Tells Us . Created by Deanna Gray, the report is a compilation of over 40 peer-reviewed research articles that center around the use of creative arts as therapy. The library of research supporting the efficacy of art therapy has only continued to grow in the years since the report was published. One such study led by Khadeja Alwledat found that just four sessions of creative art therapy had a statistically significant positive impact on the levels of depression , anxiety, and stress of the participants, all of whom were within three months post-stroke diagnosis. This wide array of research behind art therapy is accompanied by the establishment of initiatives, such as the NeuroArts Blueprint, and outreach projects like the University of Michigan’s Prison Creative Arts Project.

The Blueprint is an interdisciplinary initiative that is working to “break new ground at the crossroads of science, the arts, and technology.” It is building a community of individuals and organizations who are invested in advancing the use of arts and aesthetic experiences as tools to improve health and well-being. In 2021, the Blueprint was released as an “authoritative, first-of-its-kind roadmap” to advance brain science research, policy, and funding and to catalyze and mobilize “the full power of art.”

Along with the Blueprint, some institutions have begun creating projects to acknowledge the efficacy of art therapy, as well as promote the use of art therapy across their campuses. The Prison Creative Arts Project at the University of Michigan is a program within the Residential College that provides academic training in “issues surrounding incarceration and practical skills in the arts.” This project sends a newsletter to over 1,800 recipients, informing them of upcoming programs and events. By reaching out to those impacted by the justice system and bringing them together with the University of Michigan community, the Prison Creative Arts Project promotes “artistic collaboration , mutual learning, and growth.”

How to Become an Art Therapist

In order to become an art therapist, one must complete a master’s degree in a related field, become board-certified through the Art Therapy Credentials Board , and complete “100 hours of supervised work along with 600 hours of a clinical internship.” Students looking to become art therapists must take graduate-level courses in topics such as the creative process, psychological development, psychodiagnostics, and art therapy assessment. Beyond this, they will also receive training in studio art methods such as drawing, painting, and sculpture. Students should choose a program that is approved by the Commission on the Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) or the American Art Therapy Association (AATA). These well-renowned programs enable students to pursue national credentialing and licensure after graduation.

At its core, a degree in art therapy is a research-based discipline that “combines active art-making, the creative process, applied psychological theory, and the human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship.” These hours of training provide art therapists with the ability to work with diverse populations and to support their clients through a wide range of challenges.

Searching for an Art Therapist

When looking for an art therapist as a patient, first make sure that the individual has completed either a CAAHEP-accredited or AATA-approved program. From there, choosing an art therapist is a matter of personal preference. Generally, the first time that you meet with an art therapist will be similar to any therapy intake session: they will ask you multiple questions about your background and experiences, and you will have the opportunity to ask them any questions, as well. You will want to choose someone with whom you feel comfortable and at ease. It is completely acceptable not to schedule another session with a therapist if there is something you do not like. Keep in mind that going to see an art therapist is meant to benefit you solely; thus, the choice is entirely yours.

Encouraging Art Therapy

For therapists, the question of whether it makes clinical sense to encourage a patient to look into art therapy depends on a variety of factors. If the patient struggles to verbalize trauma, art therapy may provide them with a better means of communication. As another example, if a patient is evasive and artistically inclined, allowing them to express themselves through art may help break down barriers, allowing them to become more cooperative.

essay about art therapy

While art therapy may exist outside of conventional clinical frameworks, therapists should recognize that it is an option from which many patients may benefit and an established method of therapy.

Samoon Ahmad M.D.

Samoon Ahmad, M.D. is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, NYU Grossman School of Medicine; Unit Chief, Inpatient Psychiatry, Bellevue Hospital Center; and Founder of Integrative Center for Wellness in New York City.

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Home — Essay Samples — Psychology — Clinical Psychology — Art Therapy

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Essays on Art Therapy

Brief description of art therapy.

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person's physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.

Importance of Writing Essays on This Topic

Essays on art therapy are essential for both academic and personal exploration. They provide an opportunity to delve deep into the theory and practice of art therapy, allowing students and individuals to gain a comprehensive understanding of its principles, benefits, and applications. Writing essays on this topic also encourages critical thinking and analysis, fostering a deeper appreciation for the power of art as a therapeutic tool.

Tips on Choosing a Good Topic

  • Consider personal experiences: Reflect on personal experiences with art and how it has impacted your emotional well-being.
  • Explore current research: Look into recent studies and developments in the field of art therapy to find relevant and impactful topics.
  • Discuss practical applications: Consider the practical applications of art therapy in various settings, such as hospitals, schools, and community centers, to identify compelling essay topics.

Essay Topics

  • The Role of Art Therapy in Mental Health Treatment
  • The Impact of Art Therapy on Children with Autism
  • Art Therapy as a Tool for Stress Relief and Anxiety Management
  • The Use of Art Therapy in Trauma Recovery
  • Exploring the Intersection of Art and Healing in Art Therapy
  • Art Therapy Techniques for Self-Exploration and Personal Growth
  • The Ethical Considerations in Art Therapy Practice
  • Art Therapy and Expressive Arts for Mindfulness and Well-being
  • The Integration of Art Therapy in Counseling and Psychotherapy
  • The Effectiveness of Art Therapy for Veterans with PTSD

Concluding Thought

Engaging with art therapy through essay writing provides an opportunity to deepen understanding and appreciation of the profound impact of art on mental and emotional well-being. Through exploration and critical analysis, individuals can gain insight into the transformative power of art therapy and its potential to improve lives.

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Art Therapy in Prison

The benefits of clay therapy, art therapy: the healing power of colour, genogram and other tools to use in the family art therapy, relevant topics.

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essay about art therapy

Art Therapy: Practice and Challenges Essay

Introduction, art therapy, use of creating art in art therapy, problems facing art therapists, works cited.

Therapy denotes a special care offered to people experiencing hardships in their lives. It is a form of treatment given to cure these adversities. It comprises of qualified professionals who tackle problems ranging from slump, nervousness, frustrations in relationships, as well as family issues.

Therapy can be classified on the basis of the composition of what is used. For instance, material things like drugs, hormones, or genes. Energetic things like light or sound are used as well. It can also involve human interaction like counseling. Therapy appears in a wide range of categories. This overview expounds on the art therapy, highlighting some of the roles art therapists do as well as the problems they encounter in their work.

Following the use of visual manifestations that were employed by traditional people to administer healings for mentally sick people, the issue of coupling this old fashioned method with new improved ones arose. It gave rise to the art therapy as a distinguished profession. It was not functional until the beginning of 1940s, resulting from the artistic impression depicted by the mentally ill people. Art therapy is a costly class of therapy that employs artistic materials in its running. It makes use of chalks, paints, as well as markers.

It bases its operations purely on art techniques to boost the fitness of the body, mind, as well as the body emotions of its patients. It is founded on the notion that, the creativity seen in artists can arrest the common family conflicts, can nurture social skills, not sparing behavior and stress. Art therapists are highly learned people who have majored in the field of art therapy. They have been equipped with the relevant skills of interacting with all categories of people, young, old, male, female, couples, families, communities, to mention a few.

“Art making is seen as an opportunity to express one’s self imaginatively, authentically, and spontaneously, an experience that, over time, can lead to personal fulfillment, emotional reparation, and recovery” (Malchiodi 27).

Therapists are trained to identify the appropriate treatments for their people, failure to which the intervention can turn to a disaster. They improve their clients’ capacity of judging, teaching them how they can manage depression and stress. They also show them the appropriate ways of copying up with hardships and solving home issues.

Creating art is highly essential in art therapy. “While art therapy is its own field, you can use the benefits of art to express your creative side and drawing skills to reduce stress and get in touch with your feelings” (Elizabeth Para. 1). In clinical art therapy, art has been employed as a stress killer where interesting drawings are made, taking the thoughts of the patient off the source of his/her stress.

Creating art, as applied in youth, children, and old people, boosts discussions where the concerned feels free to reveal any problem he/she might be going through. It makes people recall their past fears and disputes, getting another chance of solving them permanently.

It has been found that creating art is a working way of healing, commonly referred to as the therapeutic process. For instance, music can manage high blood pressure, improve ones feelings, and relax ones muscles, among others.

When something visible is created, the process of discussing about it helps people unfold some serious untold issues affecting them and by so doing, end up getting relieved of the matters. Therapists have invented symbols and pictures which they technically subject to their clients in a manner that makes them (clients) address all their problems, giving the experts an easy time of administering the relevant remedies.

The main difficulty facing art therapists is money. This is so because they offer expensive treatments. This explains why they are currently few in the world. The equipment employed by these experts is quite expensive and this calls for support in order to deliver their services to as many people as possible. As they interact with their clients, therapists experience a hard time especially when handling the aged. This follows from the notion that the old resist changes.

When a therapist attempts to administer a treatment, this category of people does not sense it, even after he/she employs some artistic expressions. Following the laid down rules and regulations, it is an offence for therapists to disclose any of their client’s information.

There are some who are naturally open and cannot manage to keep a secret. They end up being fired for breaking this rule. Since a therapist can either serve a group or an individual client, he/she suffers a lot of temptations in the latter case, when he/she encounters a client of the opposite gender.

Basing on the above art therapy observations, I find the issue of creating art significant. This follows from my realization that art is itself a cure of some of the prevalent problems experienced in almost every home around the globe. This then calls for all potential bodies to join hands in establishing as many art therapy associations as possible everywhere. Though expensive to establish, the solutions therein are incomparable.

Elizabeth, Scott. “Art Therapy: Relieve Stress By Being Creative.” West Virginia: W,Va Press, 2007.

Malchiodi, David. “Art Therapy.” New York: Palm Press, 2004, p.27.

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IvyPanda. (2022, March 22). Art Therapy: Practice and Challenges.

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IvyPanda . "Art Therapy: Practice and Challenges." March 22, 2022.

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What Is Expressive Arts Therapy?

Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Rachel Goldman, PhD FTOS, is a licensed psychologist, clinical assistant professor, speaker, wellness expert specializing in eating behaviors, stress management, and health behavior change.

essay about art therapy

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People who are experiencing mental health issues may have a difficult time interpreting or describing how they are feeling. Through expressive arts therapy, they can learn more about themselves and share what they are feeling in a therapeutic context.

If you're considering this therapy or it has been recommended to you, it's helpful to understand the types available and how it can help. Keep reading to also learn what research says about expressive arts therapy's effectiveness, along with things to consider when determining if it is the right therapy for you .

Types of Expressive Arts Therapy

The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) explains that expressive arts therapy is a multimodal approach, combining several expressive arts—movement, writing, music, and more—"to foster deep personal growth and community development." As a multimodal therapy, it draws on a few different types of single-modal approaches.

Four types of creative arts often used in expressive arts therapy include:

  • Art therapy : This approach involves utilizing visual arts such as drawing, painting, and sculpting to work through emotions, thoughts, or experiences. 
  • Dance therapy : This type of therapy uses physical movement and dance to help people cope with mental health symptoms such as anxiety, stress, and depression.
  • Music therapy : This approach utilizes listening to or creating music to help improve mood and ease anxiety. 
  • Writing therapy : This form of therapy involves exploring thoughts and emotions through writing approaches such as journaling or creating poems or fictional stories. 

While each of these therapeutic modalities can be used on its own, expressive arts therapy is an integration of several approaches together, sometimes in the same session. It can also be incorporated into other therapy methods and integrates well with several approaches.

By drawing on different modalities and integrating them in ways that are beneficial to each individual’s needs, this approach to treatment can create unique experiences that allow people to better understand their emotions, thoughts, memories, and experiences.

Expressive Arts Therapy Techniques

This type of therapy focuses on the creative process. So, expressive arts therapists may draw on a wide variety of techniques to create a treatment best suited to the individual's needs. Such techniques can include:

  • Creating sculptures, collages, or memory books
  • Dancing or other forms of movement
  • Drama or improvisation
  • Journal writing , or reading or writing poems, stories, or songs
  • Listening to or creating music
  • Painting, drawing, or sketching

In addition to utilizing the healing properties of self-expression through art, professionals trained in expressive arts therapy also incorporate other types of therapy into their client sessions. They might pull techniques from psychodynamic therapy , cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) , and mindfulness-based approaches.

What Expressive Arts Therapy Can Help With

Expressive arts therapy can be used with both adults and children and may be beneficial for several different mental health conditions. Some conditions or concerns it can help with include:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Bereavement or grief
  • Brain injuries
  • Chronic medical conditions
  • Developmental disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Emotional issues
  • Interpersonal issues
  • Low self-esteem
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)

Expressive arts therapy can also help hospitalized children deal with the stress associated with their hospitalization.

Benefits of Expressive Arts Therapy

The use of the expressive arts can augment talk therapy by allowing people to use strategies that work best for them. For some people, talking about their experiences may be the preferred form of self-exploration. Others, however, might benefit more from activities such as drawing a picture or writing in a journal. 

The IEATA shares that expressive arts therapy can help people improve creativity , gain clarity, and achieve deep healing. Plus, many art activities are suitable for a wide variety of individuals and can often be employed in any setting with only minimal supplies. 

One review found that expressive arts therapy has been used in a wide range of contexts. It has been implemented in community centers, as well as with people who are homeless, immigrants, cancer patients, patients in dementia care, and patients in hospice care.

Expressive Arts Therapy Effectiveness

Several pieces of research suggest that expressive arts therapy is effective in a variety of ways.

  • A 2021 review concluded that this approach helped improve collaboration between patients, their families, and healthcare professionals in adult health and nursing care.
  • A 2019 study found that art therapy was linked to improved cognitive functioning in elderly adults with mild neurocognitive disorders.
  • A 2016 review reported that hospitalized children were calmer and seemed less stressed after expressive arts therapy sessions, also experiencing improvements in mood.

More generally, art-making has been found to have several positive mental health effects. For instance, a 2020 study found that engaging in a coloring activity helped reduce anxiety and improve mood in older adults.

If You're Considering Expressive Arts Therapy

If you are thinking about trying expressive arts therapy, you don't have to have training or experience in the activity you're doing. You also don't have to be good at that art form. This therapy is not about what you are creating; it is the process of creating that matters.

Expressive arts therapy isn’t the same as taking an art class. Your focus isn’t on learning artistic techniques but on the inner emotional experience as you engage in the artistic process, either in a receptive (such as listening to music) or creative (such as making art) manner.

Authors of one review state, "One does not need to be an artist or have any special skills to express oneself through art-making; the most important thing is an open attitude to creativity in everyday life. This allows one to give oneself and others a chance to interact with and be touched by art and to vary the pattern of everyday life."

That said, expressive arts therapy isn’t right for everyone. For example, it might not be a good fit for people who are skeptical or unwilling to participate in the creative experience. It may also not be appropriate for individuals with certain psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia.

Getting Started With Expressive Arts Therapy

If you are interested in trying expressive arts therapy, here's how to get started:

  • First, find a therapist : Your first step is to find a therapist with training and experience in the expressive arts. You could ask your care provider for a referral or use an online therapist directory to find a local professional.
  • Check with your insurance : Check with your insurance provider to see if your policy will cover the treatment and, if it does, to what extent. This treatment is more likely to be covered by insurance if provided by a certified psychologist or psychiatrist.
  • Know what to expect : During an expressive arts therapy session, a therapist guides you through a process of exploring what you are feeling using an expressive art activity. They may have you work through multiple activities or you might focus on a specific form of expression, such as writing or dance. 

International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. Welcome to IEATA .

Appalachian State University. Questions about expressive arts therapy .

Cleveland Clinic. Creative arts therapies .

Hoffmann B. The role of expressive therapies in therapeutic interactions; art therapy - explanation of the concept . Trakia J Sci . 2016;3:197-202. doi:10.15547/tjs.2016.03.001

Siegel J, Iida H, Rachlin K, Yount G. Expressive arts therapy with hospitalized children: A pilot study of co-creating Healing Sock Creatures© . J Pediatr Nurs . 2016;31(1):92-8. doi:10.1016/j.pedn.2015.08.006

International Expressive Arts Therapy Association. Who we are .

Vaartio-Rajalin H, Santamäki-Fischer R, Jokisalo P, Fagerström L. Art making and expressive art therapy in adult health and nursing care: A scoping review .  Int J Nurs Sci . 2020;8(1):102-119. doi:10.1016/j.ijnss.2020.09.011

Mahendran R, Gandhi M, Moorakonda RB, et al. Art therapy is associated with sustained improvement in cognitive function in the elderly with mild neurocognitive disorder: findings from a pilot randomized controlled trial for art therapy and music reminiscence activity versus usual care . Trials . 2018;19(1):615. doi:10.1186/s13063-018-2988-6

Koo M, Chen HP, Yeh YC. Coloring activities for anxiety reduction and mood improvement in Taiwanese community-dwelling older adults: a randomized controlled study . Evid Based Complement Alternat Med . 2020 Jan 21;2020:6964737. doi:10.1155/2020/6964737

Farokhi M. Art therapy in humanistic psychiatry . Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences . 2011;30:2088-2092. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2011.10.406

Laws KR, Conway W. Do adjunctive art therapies reduce symptomatology in schizophrenia? A meta-analysis . World J Psychiatry. 2019;9(8):107-120. doi:10.5498/wjp.v9.i8.107

Pak J. Does your health insurance cover art and music therapy? Healthcare Insider.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Art Therapy Essay Examples

The effectiveness of creative art therapies treating post traumatic stress disorder.

The authors in this article reviewed numerous records of studies that were done to test the effectiveness of creative art therapies treating PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). They narrowed their review down to seven studies that used a controlled study structure and had conveyed evidence...

Effectiveness of Both Cbt and Art Therapy on Coping Mechanism

The Social work intern is currently interning at Sheltering Arms and Family Service. Sheltering Arms is a non-profit organization established in 1831. The population that is assisted is very diverse in all categories whether it’s ethnicity, race or all ages. The services it offers fall...

My Future Career as an Art Therapist

I’ve always wanted to combine my love of art and my compassion for people. I plan to do this by studying Social Work for my second master’s degree and eventually becoming an art therapist. My first master’s degree was in Fine Art; while making my...

Reflection on Visiting the Movement Theatre in Georgia

The Movement theatre is an ideal place to understand better modern Georgian culture and look at the theatre from the other side. Since the actors tell the story only through movements, there is no language barriers, and the theater tries its best to please everyone,...

To Investigate the Role of Art Therapy

In the developmental psychology, human relationship is the fundamental key of physical and psychological well-being, as human survives by depending on each other. According to the first and second principle of sociocultural level of analysis, human relationship is built because human being has the basic...

The Role of Art Therapy in Healing Anxiety and Depression

A recent scientific journal provided proof that the use of art therapy can improve psychological stability and help alleviate depression, anger, stress and anxiety levels. High levels of anxiety and depression can affect a patient not only psychologically but also physically. Through new studies, health...

The Effectiveness of Art Therapy and How It Results in Happiness

The article “Does Art Therapy Work? Identifying the Activate Ingredients of Art Therapy Efficacy” states that art, itself, can help clients cope with emotional pain. Art can effectively improve one’s mental state. Author Lynn Kapitan, editor of Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy...

The Effect of Art Therapy on Depressive Symptoms in the Elderly

A diagnosis of depression involves a loss of interest in usual activities or feelings of sadness accompanied by an array of possible symptoms that must be present for at least two weeks (American Psychiatric Association, 2017). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2017)...

Art Therapy in the Female Veteran Population

“Women have greater odds of adverse mental health among deployed veterans,” (Hoglund and Schwartz, 2014, Lehavot et al. , 2012, Maiocco & Smith, 2016). In today’s society, a lot more women are joining the military. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, there were 1....

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