When mental health practitioners have sent me referrals, they have often qualified those treatment requests with the statement “He’s / She’s really good at art.” This is not altogether a bad thing. It tells me that the client is less likely to go through that initial rejection phase, when I often hear “I can’t draw”, or “I wish I could draw”. It’s as if those clients who “can’t draw” are rejecting this type of intervention before discovering what it’s all about.
So I’ve learned to follow up that statement with “Well, what do you mean by “art”, exactly?” People who are technically skilled and experienced with an aesthetically pleasing “Bob Ross-ian” idea of artmaking are often very surprised when they walk into my studio. Instead of the “I can’t draw” protests, I am sometimes confronted with clients who get upset when I won’t teach them anything.
Art therapy is not art instruction. It is not entertainment or a hobby. It is a form of psychotherapy. Although artists are welcome to become clients, these sessions will not train you in how to become a better artist. The art therapist’s role is not to judge your work, or to advise you on how to improve your technical skill. These sessions are designed to give you the skills and the insight to ultimately become a better, more integrated YOU.
At its base level, art therapy is all about your personal creation of lines, shapes, images and symbols in a safe, non-judgmental environment. No one is going to critique your work. No one is going to see your work unless you decide to show it. Your work will not be displayed for public viewing. Artwork that you create in session, like any other output in a clinical session, is kept confidential. Despite the “art” in the name, you don’t need to be an artist, or even to have any creative experience, training or self perceived talent to be a client of this type of therapy. Contrary to popular belief, putting marks on paper isn’t necessarily the same thing as drawing by the western world’s concept of “fine art”. As a therapist, I would not ask a client to do anything that was outside of his skill range. Generally, putting marks on paper is not outside of the average client’s fine motor ability. We will not be producing masterpieces in our sessions. In fact, we don’t have to produce anything at all. You get to decide what you want to do with the art materials. Having trained in psychology, counselling skills and art, the therapist will guide you through the creative process in a therapeutic way using a hand-on (instead of verbal) approach.
Many people – artists and non-artists – who are living with mental health issues like depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder have really benefited from this intervention. But a treatment for mental illness is just one of the ways in which art therapy can be used. In fact, art therapy is more of a holistic, strengths-based approach. This means that instead of concentrating on what’s “wrong” with you, and how to “fix” you, we look at the “whole you”, including strengths and parts that you like about yourself that you may not have thought about in therapy before. Over the years, I have seen many people looking for alternative stress management techniques, looking for ways to connect with loved ones and the community, or looking to gain greater insight in themselves and their relationships – with or without a psychiatrist-defined “mental illness”. In other words, art therapy is not only about treating mental illness as such. It’s also about promoting mental health.