The most deeply felt heartbreaks are sometimes the hardest to talk about. Traumatized people who have difficulty explaining their feelings in words often work with an art therapist, who can help them express and process their emotions in a visual way.
Art therapy is a clinical profession. Art therapists are mental health care providers with master’s degrees who use artwork and art analysis to discover the root causes of a client’s distress and to address psychological wounds.
Here are some key facts to know if you’re interested in becoming an art therapist.
What Art Therapy Is and Who It Helps
Art therapy is not simply the process of engaging in a pleasurable creative endeavor and entering a state of “flow,” says Meera Rastogi, professor of psychology and art therapy at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. Although art-making by oneself for the sake of fun or self-discovery may feel soothing, it isn’t art therapy, explains Rastogi, who has a Ph.D. in counseling psychology and a master’s in art therapy.
To count as therapy, an introspective artistic activity must be guided by a trained art therapist who provides guidance along the soul-searching journey, she says. “They have a knowledge base, skills and training to work with the materials and the image in a way that goes much deeper than you would do on your own… So there’s lots of great work by artists working in hospitals, by volunteers working and doing art programs, and that is not art therapy.”
Images created before or during an art therapy session provide a starting point for scientifically informed conversations about subconscious thoughts, mindless behaviors and other subtle influences on a client’s life that he or she may not otherwise recognize.
When art therapy clients make pictures that represent their identity, circumstances or dreams, they can – with the help of their therapist – gain clarity about their wants or needs and decide what they should do next.
Art therapists show clients how to cope with sadness and find hope in spite of adversity, and they assist people from all walks of life. “An art therapist can help many different clients, from 3 year olds to seniors, with or without mental disorders,” Youhjung Son, a registered and board-certified art therapist in Maryland, wrote in an email.
People who are interested in helping others, fascinated by the human psyche and like the idea of “using creative expression as a way to heal” should consider a career in art therapy, she says. “An art therapist would need to be compassionate, understanding, patient, positive-minded, and confident in themselves as well.”
Getting an Art Therapy Degree and Board Certification
Earning status as a board-certified art therapist through the Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc. is a rigorous multistep process.
These are the key steps aspiring art therapists must take to obtain needed credentials:
- Earn a master’s degree in art therapy or a master’s in a related field, in which case extra education would be necessary. Supplemental coursework would also be needed with an art therapy degree from a program that is not approved by the American Art Therapy Association or accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs. A list of approved and accredited programs is available online.
- Complete 24 credits of art therapy classes and spend at least 700 hours in a supervised art therapy internship.
- Take 18 credits of studio art courses at the undergraduate or graduate level.
Art therapy master’s programs usually last at least two years and may take as long as three-and-a-half years to complete. They combine art-focused classes and psychology courses.
After receiving a master’s, a future art therapist can seek provisional credentials and start working under the supervision of an experienced therapist, who can serve as a mentor. The goal is to gain sufficient clinical experience — at least 1,000 hours — to qualify as a registered art therapist, though the amount of experience needed varies depending on a person’s academic credentials. A handbook with detailed instructions on becoming registered is available from the credentials board.
A formally registered art therapist may work independently and can become board-certified by passing a national exam. Though board certification is not mandatory, experts say it increases an art therapist’s credibility and marketability .
Art Therapy Jobs, Salary Ranges and Employers
The most common salary range for U.S. art therapists in 2021 was $50,000 to $79,999, according to a recent demographic survey of American Art Therapy Association members. Meanwhile, 5.9% earned six-figure salaries, survey data shows.
Roughly 88% of art therapists in the survey reported working 40 hours or fewer a week, and their most common workplaces were independent practices, outpatient mental health clinics, social service and community mental health agencies, and art centers and studios.
What It’s Like to Be an Art Therapist
The combination of visual art and talk therapy can encourage patients who are especially nervous, guarded or reluctant to relax and share information with their therapists, Rastogi says. Honesty and transparency are beneficial because understanding between a patient and therapist aids psychological healing and increases the likelihood of emotional breakthroughs for patients.
“They become more open to other ideas and possibilities,” she says.
While the intensity of verbal therapy can overwhelm some patients, that problem can be overcome by integrating art into therapy, Rastogi says. “The work is powerful and amazing. It is much quicker therapeutically than I have observed with verbal therapy.”
Aspiring mental health caregivers who appreciate art can integrate that interest into their practice if they become an art therapist, Rastogi adds.
“Even though the work is hard, people enjoy it more than in traditional therapy, and I think part of it is you get this physical representation of the work that you’ve done, whereas in verbal therapy – okay, I feel better – but as soon as I leave the therapist’s office, I may or may not be able to maintain that feeling,” she says.
The physical object produced in art therapy can comfort patients, Rastogi says, serving as a tangible reminder of their progress.
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