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Five Common Misconceptions About Art Therapy
A piece of art created during an art therapy session at Bradley Hospital.
The children admitted to Bradley Hospital are often vulnerable and experiencing some of the most difficult challenges of their lives. Here at Bradley, we focus on providing aspects of care that will lead to the best possible experience and outcomes for our patients.
As a result, there is a growing interest in healing arts and other enriching opportunities during hospital stays. With this demand for healing arts on the rise, people with a variety of training, skills, and education are answering the call.
Bradley Hospital has three art therapists in the social work and counseling department who offer group and individual therapy to children in our various programs. The hospital also brings in community artists in healthcare to bring yoga, dance, music, drama, circus arts, therapeutic dogs, and tape art murals to our patients.
Although widely supported, art therapy is often misunderstood. While passing through the halls you can hear “art lady” or “hey, art teacher!” called out by staff and kids alike. The following are common mistakes people make when thinking about art therapy:
1. You need to be an artist or at least good at art.
False! A common phrase I hear in groups is “I’m not good at art.” My retort? “We aren’t trying to get into the Guggenheim. If tearing up paper best expresses how you’re feeling, and matches you right now, do that!” The name of the game is expression. As a visual language, art therapy need not be “good” or “well done” in the eyes of others to be effective. Anyone with a grain of creativity, and a sprinkling of curiosity, is able!
2. Art therapy is for children or the elderly.
Untrue. Art therapy can be effective for most ages or populations. In fact, art is one of my favorite things to bring to family therapy, as it has the ability to level the playing field. Persons of all ages can use the same “language” and often the same skills to interact and communicate. In adolescence, people often decide if they are “good” or not and determine whether to continue developing those skills.
3. It’s just arts and crafts.
Art therapy is so much more; it’s a mental health profession. An art therapist needs a master’s degree in expressive therapies and 1,000 post-graduate hours of supervised client contact before they are eligible for certification as a registered art therapist (ATR). In addition, most states do not recognize an ATR as a license. In order to practice, they receive a LMHC, LMFT, LPC, or other mental health license, which entails a higher level of training and experience.
4. You can figure me out from the pictures I draw.
Unfortunately, art therapists are not fortune tellers. While we can make informed observations and educated guesses, the artist knows how their art relates to them and their life experiences. The artmaking serves as part of a dialogue. Art can function as the voice, or even a third party, in the therapeutic conversation. For example, if a painting is entirely black, it could be indicative of depression, or perhaps the creator grabbed the last available bottle of paint on the shelf. While an art therapist might help you better understand what’s in your art, we cannot presume or project our own thoughts and experiences onto your work.
5. My adult coloring book is art therapy.
Almost, but not quite. Coloring books have boomed in recent years—so much so that colored pencil production has upped the ante to keep pace. While coloring in premade designs can be self-soothing and have therapeutic effects, it’s not art therapy. Art therapy is the therapeutic use of creating art with a qualified therapist.
Through creation, imagery brings awareness and insight to life experiences that can then be explored with the therapist. Benefits come from both the process of making art, and the interpretation of the product by the patient. The work done in these sessions has the potential to challenge and arouse difficult feelings in the participants. However, this isn’t to say that calming art activities aren’t a great tool for self-regulation. If an adult coloring book helps regulate you, color away!
You can find out more about art therapy and other healing arts opportunities throughout Lifespan on our website.
Melissa J Weaver, LMHC, ATR
Melissa Weaver is a resident art therapist at Bradley Hospital. She works with the Pediatric Partial Hospital Program, Adolescent Partial Hospital Program, the Intensive Program for OCD, and Outpatient Services. Previously, she gained experience in a variety of settings working at residential, educational and clinical programs throughout southern New England.