Sunday, December 11

Consumer's Guide to Art Therapy

Art therapy is pretty cool.  I'm a fan . . . but I'm also biased, since it's my living.  A lot of people who work in mental health don't understand what art therapy is and even fewer consumers who are looking for a therapist.  There's also a difference between therapists who use art in their practice and art therapists.  After the jump are some things to consider if you're looking for a therapist or get connected with one who is an art therapist.
     First off, the most important thing about therapy is that you find the right person, every one will tell you that.  The right therapist is just as important as the right medication, yet people are willing to try 15 kinds of antidepressants and only a therapist or two.  Don't ever get discouraged if you can't find someone you like.  Even at agencies where you are assigned a therapist upon entry and might feel like you're stuck with who you got . . . push, ask, demand and there are always other options.  As therapists, we want you to get the best care, even if it's not with us.  What does this have to do with art therapy?  I'm getting there, I promise.
     One of the biggest things I hear when I tell people that I'm an art therapist is: I can't draw.  Well, guess what?  I went to college for art and had to take art classes in graduate school . . . and I can't draw either, so, no problem!  Art therapy is about making art, not gonna lie to you.  But it's not about making good art, it's not always about drawing, and often isn't even about the product created.  The art created by a client in a therapy environment is often very different than the art that same person might create if they were just making art.  Get that idea out of your head, I don't care if you're not an artist, I don't care if you can't draw, it doesn't matter.  If you're self conscious about it, tell your therapist!  We actually have good ideas of how to get around your self criticism . . .
     Generally, there are two types of art therapists (and two kinds of people, those who say there are two kinds of people and blah, blah, blah).  There are therapists, people who have at least gone to graduate school and are likely Licensed Mental Health Counselors.  These go by many names in many places . . . LCMHC- Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, LPC- Licensed Professional Counselor, LPCC- Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, LMHC- Licensed Mental Health Counselor, LMFT- Licensed Marriage and Family Counselor, LCPC- Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor.  These kinds of therapists can also be art therapists.  There are also art therapists who work as part of a larger team and might be a second therapist you work with.
     Art therapists are officially credentialed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board and are Registered Art Therapists (ATRs) or Board Certified Art Therapists (ATR-BCs).  ATRs have specific educational requirements, supervision requirements, and need to have experience after graduate school, in addition to all this, ATR-BCs must take a comprehensive examination.
    Not all the time you spend with an art therapist will be spent making art.  Art therapy is about working on your goals and sometimes it's with drawing, painting, talking, collage, sculpture, reading . . . Art therapy works because people can talk about what they have made in new ways or work through issues without needing to confront them head on.  Plus, for people who have experienced a trauma, those memories get stored incorrectly in the brain, which leads to symptoms.  This means that trauma is stored as pictures and so using art therapy is a great tool to help the brain store them correctly.  It is amazing how simply seeing something outside of yourself can bring an epiphany or realization that leads to change.  Art therapists often use metaphors, ranging from simple to incredibly complex, to teach, change, or inspire.  There are art therapists who run the gamut from those work primarily with art and let clients direct themselves, creating whatever they like and those who give specific directives to clients and spend much of the session processing the art or art making experience.
     Art therapy is about the visual, the connections in the brain, and having a trained professional who can be a support and guide through this.  Here is where the difference lies between a therapist who uses art in their practice and art therapists.  Art therapists are more familiar with art supplies, methods of art in therapy, how to work with materials, how to best use visuals and art making in the therapy relationship, and how to use art to achieve the goals of counseling.  That said, there are many competent therapists who use art making in sessions effectively and art therapy is different than just making art in sessions.
     Naturally, art therapy isn't for everyone, there are as many kinds of therapy as there are therapists.  Art therapy is one of many kinds of therapy, but I think people dismiss it because they "can't draw" or just don't understand the process.  I always tell my clients, when you can't tell me, you can show me.  Not to mention, it is often less intimidating to create a simple picture of your family, than to answer the fully loaded question, "Tell me about your family."  Do your research, find out what you want from a therapist, what training you want them to have, and who they need to be as a person.  There's a growing number of art therapists in the United States, though, especially in rural areas, one may not be near you.  A quick search for New Hampshire showed only 15 ATRs and only 7 ATR-BCs in the whole state . . . One more is on the way! : )

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