How Art Therapy Works

September 2, 2020

For many years, traditional psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and dialectical-behavioral therapy (among others) have been used successfully as part of evidence-based treatment programs. In recent years, alternative treatment models have become popular mainstream and complementary elements for many mental health and addiction treatment needs. This is not to say the traditional therapy techniques are any less useful or successful. However, it is essential to remember that mental health symptoms affect each person differently, and therefore, the treatment one individual finds beneficial may no work as well for others.

What is Art Therapy?

For well over one hundred years, the field of art therapy has proven effective in helping individuals explore and express feelings. By definition, art therapy is the use of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health. Art, either the creation of one’s own work or viewing other’s artistic creations, is used to help individuals explore emotions, develop deeper self-awareness, cope with stress, boost self-esteem and work on the development of social skills. While art therapy is sometimes considered an unconventional approach, it can be highly beneficial for those who don’t, won’t, or can’t usually open up during traditional individual or group therapy counseling sessions.

Art therapy combines psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process of art to improve mental health and well-being. According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is an approach to mental health that utilizes the process of creating art to improve mental, physical, and emotional wellness.

Art therapy’s primary goal is to use the creative processes associated with making or viewing art to help individuals explore self-expression. Through the exploratory process, people often find new and healthy ways to gain insight into their mental health and also develop new, productive coping skills. Techniques commonly used as part of an art therapy session include drawing, painting, coloring, sculpting, or creating collages. Participants may also work with various media, including paint, markers, chalk, or clay, among others. As your teen creates art, they have the opportunity to consider and analyze what they have made. Also, they are encouraged to explore how their creation makes them feel. Through exploring their (or someone else’s) art, teens can look for themes or conflicts within their work that may be affecting their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Perhaps one of the best parts of art therapy is that participants do not need to possess any artistic ability or unique talents to participate in art therapy sessions at Hillcrest Adolescent Treatment Center.

Art Therapy Throughout History

Although not as commonly known as traditional therapeutic methods such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, art therapy has been used as a successful treatment model for quite some time. For thousands of years, people have been relying on some form of artistic expression to communicate, express themselves, and heal. However, art therapy did not begin to gain recognition as a formal therapeutic treatment program until the late 1940s. The members of the medical community noticed that individuals struggling with varying types of mental illness often used drawing and other forms of artwork to express themselves. This realization led those within the mental health and medical communities to explore the use of art as a treatment and healing model. Since the early part of the 1900s, art therapy has grown to be a vital element within the therapeutic field. Today, it is used as a part of assessment and treatment techniques for teens (and other age groups) with various mental health struggles.

Who Might Benefit from Art Therapy?

Art therapy has shown success in treating a wide variety of mental disorders. For most, art therapy will be used in conjunction with other traditional therapeutic techniques such as group therapy or cognitive-behavioral therapy. It is important to note here that the goal of art therapy is not to diagnose a specific condition; however, it aims to help your teen discover the meanings behind the emotions that helped them create a particular art piece.

Various studies have shown that art therapy can be beneficial for several mental health conditions. In a recent study of patients struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, researchers found that art therapy helped manage stress and improve the disorder’s physical symptoms. Unlike traditional therapeutic techniques (including journaling), art therapy was found to reduce the intensity and frequency of nightmares, improve sleep, and reduce the startle response experienced with sudden awakening.

Art therapy can be used to successfully treat various mental health conditions as well as a host of physical ailments that frequently result from co-occurring mental health conditions. Examples of mental health conditions commonly treated through the use of art therapy include anxiety, depression, disordered eating, post-traumatic stress disorders, stress, and other emotional difficulties. Art therapy has also shown success in treating teens with significant behavioral and social problems at school or home, learning disabilities, brain injuries, and other mental health conditions such as schizophrenia and other psychosocial disorders. Art therapy as an alternative or complementary therapy is also frequently used to help treat teens (and adults) with substance abuse disorders and related medical and psychological conditions.

What Are the Limitations of Art Therapy?

When a teen experiences a traumatic event, whether physical, emotional or both, they will experience certain adverse effects on a psychological level. Also, when a teen struggles with a mental health condition, they often experience a wide variety of emotional difficulties and challenges.  Art therapy attempts to address these issues at their source in a measurable way. There is a significant depth of research conducted by the American Art Therapy Association, Inc., indicating art therapy has had considerable success and benefits for those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder specifically. However, art therapy is not a “perfect” complementary treatment.

As with any psychotherapeutic process, including traditional therapies, long-buried feelings may emerge during treatment. In some cases, this can make the individual feel worse as opposed to, or before feeling better. There are indeed risks to participating in counseling of any kind. Art therapy carries with it the potential for experiencing unpleasant and uncomfortable feelings, emotions, and memories. Also, art therapy can, in some cases, have less effect than expected from a therapeutic program or result in discomforting experiences from either the therapy experience or changes that occur during your teen’s treatment program at Hillcrest, in Agoura Hills.

Additionally, while research suggests that art therapy may indeed be a beneficial process for many, some research findings on its effectiveness are mixed. Unfortunately, studies regarding art therapy and other alternative therapy models are often small, and therefore the results are inconclusive, especially where teens and younger children are concerned. For this reason, further research is needed to determine how, when, and for whom art therapy may be the most beneficial.

How Art Therapy Works

During an art therapy session at an inpatient residential treatment center like Hillcrest, a trained (or certified) art therapist may use various artistic methods, including painting, sculpture, and drawing, when working with your teen. Teens who have experienced emotional trauma, physical violence, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders are encouraged to express themselves through the creative process. Art therapy frequently offers individuals, especially teens, who may feel uncomfortable openly discussing their emotions and fears in a group or even individual setting, the opportunity to express themselves in a different way. Art therapy allows the individual to open up about how they’re feeling through means that do not require the use of their voice. For many, this can be significantly more comfortable and a much more profound and cathartic experience that allows them to see the roots of their emotions and behaviors.

Art therapy can take place in a variety of different settings. Most importantly, though, it is necessary to remember that there is a difference between art therapy and an art class. Art therapy sessions are conducted by trained, skilled professionals who have educated themselves in both the process and function of art therapy. This is not to say that an art teacher does not understand art; however, art therapy goals are different from the goals of a traditional art class. A conventional art class is focused on teaching techniques or creating a specific finished product.

On the other hand, art therapy is more about encouraging clients to focus on their inner experiences and emotions. When creating art, teens participating in art therapy can focus on their own perceptions, feelings, and imaginations. Those in the art therapy group or session are encouraged to create art that expresses their inner world more than making something that is an expression of the outer world or for others to see and appreciate. Therefore, it is essential to do your research and learn about the training and credentials of the therapy providers at your program of choice.

As previously mentioned, art therapy can take place in different environments. For example, your teen may attend counseling in an individual practitioner’s office or participate in art therapy in a private mental health setting. Art therapy is also (sometimes) offered in schools and community organizations. Other examples of environments where therapy may occur include correctional facilities, group homes, homeless shelters, women’s shelters, community art studios, senior centers, hospitals, and residential treatment centers such as Hillcrest in Southern California.

Traditional therapies such as group therapy, family therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and others remain successful and highly useful therapy models for teens seeking treatment for mental health disorders. However, alternative therapies such as art therapy are growing in popularity due to the different ways they help participants explore their emotions and behaviors. It is not uncommon for teens (or participants of any age) to shut down or feel uncomfortable during group or individual therapy sessions when asked to vocalize their emotions. Art therapy allows them to have a voice and communicate without having to speak.

If your teen is struggling with a mental health condition and you are considering seeking treatment, contact Hillcrest today to ask about our therapy programs. Perhaps art therapy may be an excellent alternative treatment option for your teen.