art therapy

Art Therapy

Over one hundred years ago, a number of European writers described the spontaneous art done by patients in mental hospitals. This seemingly irrepressible urge to make art out of any available materials confirms the compelling power of artistic expression to reveal inner experience. It was because art making provided a means of expression for those who were often uncommunicative that art therapy came to be developed as one of the helping professions.

Art therapy is defined as a human service profession that uses art media, images, the creative process, and patient/client responses to the created products as reflections of an individual’s development, abilities, personality, interests, concerns, and conflicts. Art therapy practice is based on knowledge of human developmental and psychological theories which are implemented in the full spectrum of models of assessment and treatment including educational, psychodynamic, cognitive, transpersonal, and other therapeutic means of reconciling emotional conflicts, fostering self-awareness, developing social skills, managing behavior, solving problems, reducing anxiety, aiding reality orientation, and increasing self-esteem.

Art therapy as a separate field developed simultaneously in England and the United States. Margaret Naumburg is considered its founder in this country. An educator and psychotherapist who started the Walden School in New York City, Naumburg wrote several books on art therapy and its applications with psychiatric patients in the 1940s and 1950s. Her sister Florence Cane modified principles from art education for use with children. At the same time, artists (including some who were conscientious objectors during World War II) were volunteers in mental hospitals. They eventually convinced psychiatrists of the contributions art therapy could make to treating the most difficult patients.

Theories from psychoanalysis and art education are the foundations for the two poles of the field which are termed art psychotherapy and art as therapy. Whether the therapeutic process is inherent in talking about a work of art and in expressing oneself or in the specific act of creation has been a subject of considerable debate. Most art therapists find that they draw from both approaches, modifying what they do or emphasize according to the population with which they are working.

The first journal in the field was published in 1961 as the Bulletin of Art Therapy (now the American Journal of Art Therapy). The American Art Therapy Association (AATA), founded in 1969, is the national professional organization; it sponsors annual conferences and regional symposia, approves training programs, and publishes the journal Art Therapy. The first graduate degrees were awarded in the 1970s. Today, there are undergraduate introductory courses and preparatory programs in colleges across the country as well as 27 master’s programs approved by AATA.

Art therapy is an effective treatment for the developmentally, medically, educationally, socially, or psychologically impaired; and is practiced in mental health, rehabilitation, medical, educational, and forensic institutions. Populations of all ages, races, and ethnic backgrounds are served by art therapists in individual, couples, family and group therapy formats.

Educational, professional and ethical standards for art therapists are regulated by the American Art Therapy Association. The Art Therapy Credentials Board, an independent organization, grants post-graduate Registration (A.T.R.) after reviewing documentation of completion of graduate education and post-graduate supervised experience. The Registered Art Therapist who successfully completes the written examination administered by the Art Therapy Credentials Board is qualified as Board Certified (A.T.R.-BC), a credential requiring maintenance through continuing education credits.

Research in art therapy has included studying the influence of depression on the content of drawings, the use of art to assess cognitive skills, the correlation of psychiatric diagnosis and formal variables in art, and the effect of art therapy interventions as measured by single-case designs.

For further information contact:

The American Art Therapy Association

Art Therapy Links:
Art Therapy


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