Although well established as part of a more holistic spectrum of health care in other parts of the world, art therapy is new to this region. But the term “art therapy” has been used by other local professionals doing other things long before I ever set up a practice here. It’s little wonder, then, that this term generates so many interesting interpretations and assumptions.
In the next several weeks, I’m going to present some common misunderstandings about art therapy, and their respective “debunkings” .
Myth #1: Art therapy is not a therapy (false)
“But how can arts and crafts be therapy? It’s arts and crafts!” This is one of the hardest challenges that I’ve had to overcome, and I think it’s because the phrase “art therapy” has been used in so many different settings by so many different groups of people – clinicians and non-clinicians, artists and non-artists alike. Eventually, “art activities” and “art therapy” become blended and no one is quite sure what I’m talking about when I mention my job description.
There are many forms of the artmaking process, each one similar because they all involve art yet very different with different frameworks, goals and outcomes.
Teaching art is about learning skills and acquiring techniques with specific art materials. Art is taught by an artist or qualified art teacher. As a student, you have to wait for the teacher to give step-by-step instruction before starting with the art project. In fact, it’s frowned upon if you stray too far from the teacher’s instruction – the teacher being the expert here, you have to follow his lead or risk ruining your art project. At the end of the class, everyone will have learned the same skill sets and have completed the same project - the product here being most important.
Recreation / Occupational therapy use specific art activities based in positive psychology for those with physical or mental health issues. Even though it’s a type of therapeutic intervention, the art used in these sessions is not “psychotherapy”. Art is only one intervention used by rec workers as a form of fun and leisure. Occupational therapists sometimes use art activities to fine tune a client’s motor skills. Both therapies promote self esteem and a positive self image. The project and instructions may be the same, but the process may be different for each particular client – depending on their needs.
Verbal-based Counselors / Social workers sometimes use art activities to supplement their verbal counselling framework. These are art activity “projects” with specific desired outcomes – usually to encourage the client to talk about specific issues. These projects are sometimes instructions-based. Verbal ability remains important. Social workers and counselors require at least a master’s degree specifically in social work, educational or clinical psychology before working with clients.
Art therapists are specialists in hands-on (instead of verbal) clinical interventions. Art therapy is an internationally recognized, evidence-based form of psychotherapy. In fact, it’s the therapy of choice with groups such as children, teens, or with any individual who finds it difficult to describe experiences verbally. This is because thoughts, memories and feelings are not limited to verbal language. In these sessions, the client (instead of the therapist) is the expert on how he feels and what he thinks. Although open-ended (i.e. no instructions) activities are sometimes suggested, the client decides what to create and how to use the materials. Practicing in the field requires at least a master’s level education and graduate-level specialty training. This education and training is vastly different than a social work degree, other verbal counselling skills, or recreation / occupational educations. To find out more, please visit our national association’s website: www.canadianarttherapy.org