Art therapists help people understand their problems and guide them to solutions through the creative process. They are concerned with the treatment and rehabilitation of persons with mental, emotional, medical or physical disabilities.
As early as the late 1940s, drawings and paintings were found to make a valuable contribution to the therapeutic process by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, and art therapy has slowly evolved since then into a therapeutic field in its own right.
Art therapists use art, as well as traditional means of therapy, to lessen frustration, promote healthy development and diminish the effects of a disability. Art has also proven to be a useful tool in diagnosis and mental health evaluation, particularly of children.
Art therapists usually train in psychology, with special emphasis on mark making and symbolism, non-verbal communication, psychotherapeutic understanding of child development and family dynamics, and the importance of boundaries. They recognise that image-making is an extremely potent activity and aim to use their visual and psychotherapeutic literacy to facilitate change in those with whom they work. The ways in which this is achieved vary according to the client / patient group or individual, the context and the therapist. There is, however, always an emphasis on creativity and the therapeutic relationship.
Art therapists draw on their knowledge of art, psychology, and the client / patient / student artist, to elicit art objects that are important elements in the healing process. This method provides children and adults alike with the means of expressing feelings of anger, depression and aggression.
Art therapists also assist children to discern the difference between reality and the fantasies that often accompany extreme stress, environmental events, and mental or emotional disorders. They use impressions and conclusions from the artist’s work to set goals that support the achievement of educational objectives. They often participate as members of interdisciplinary teams where insights and conclusions are shared for planning programmes - educational, rehabilitation, etc..
Art therapists might work exclusively with children who have learning disabilities or those with autistic spectrum disorder. Others work with people who have suffered head and stroke injuries. A few work in the palliative care field and in hospices.
Art therapists with advanced degrees may teach at university level and do research. Most art therapists continue their own art careers while practising as art therapists.
The profession of Art Therapy has developed considerably from informal beginnings, and now several universities around the world offer training in Art Psychotherapy at post-graduate level. Art therapy is a growing occupation as it gains acceptance as a viable therapeutic and evaluative tool, but it is still a relatively rare field with less than 5,000 in the U.S.A