Last weekend, my fraternity hosted a virtual event where we were tasked with coloring Halloween images to send to a local senior center. I couldn’t remember the last time I had picked up crayons or markers, but boy am I glad I did. Sitting at my kitchen coloring pumpkins and witches for three hours straight was the most therapeutic experience I’ve had in a while — and I am not the only one who believes that.
Art therapy is a field that examines how making art — drawing, coloring, sculpting, etc., can help individuals cope with depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health troubles. Art therapists are specifically trained in helping patients tap into their emotions and cultivate their creative processes, according to GoodTherapy.org.
You do not need to be a professional artist to participate in this form of therapy. In fact, your creations do not have to look anything like what an expert would make so long as your art can help you further examine patterns in your cognitions or emotions that can help you better understand yourself and what works for you, according to an article on VeryWell Mind.
“As clients create art, they may analyze what they have made and how it makes them feel,”
“As clients create art, they may analyze what they have made and how it makes them feel,” the article said. “Through exploring their art, people can look for themes and conflicts that may be affecting their thoughts, emotions and behaviors.”
Art therapy can also be effective for children afflicted with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), given that population tends to think more visually and can benefit from unique forms of communication and relaxation in a world often not suited for their needs, according to art therapist Theresa Van Linth, who spoke with Artsy in 2018.
“Verbal communication, she [Van Linth] noted, ‘doesn’t allow them the flexibility that they need to show to us how they see things, which is different,’” the article said. “In contrast, communicating visually — be it through drawing with markers or sculpting with clay — offers opportunities to process the world in a more open-ended, flexible, and sensory way.”
In 2009, A’ja Booth was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which occurs when scar tissue forms on the glomerus of the kidneys, which help filter waste out of blood. She developed kidney failure, and spent months in the Children’s Hospital of Michigan, where she was introduced to art therapy through photography, according to CHM’s website.
“Taking photographs and using A’ja’s own words to describe it was a nonthreatening way for her to safely communicate through images what was going on in her treatment,” the article said. “It provided her with the power and control she needed to express herself and her journey.”
Booth created an entire photo scrapbook documenting her multi-year experience in the hospital, including her treatments and final kidney transplant. She hopes to publish the book to alleviate the fears of other kids her age undergoing treatment.
Lyn Sanderson, a writer for Zavesti, discussed in an article how she has benefitted from art therapy and encouraged her own friends to embrace the craft as a way to alleviate their mental health problems.
“In addition to the relaxation which flows in from complete absorption in your creative process; the pleasure of exploration and discovery also engenders mental rejuvenation,” Sanderson said. “The many stimulating challenges of art — how to paint luminous water drops, choosing the right values for depicting aerial perspective, how to create transparent color washes in watercolor — induce a sense of accomplishment and happiness.”
Jon Harguindeguy, a Iraqi war veteran from California, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2011 after bouts of binge drinking, nightmares and other concerning symptoms engulfed him after his return from Iraq. He told KCET in 2016 art therapy, offered through the VA hospital under Awaken Arts, saved his life. He discussed his most popular painting “Let Go” and how its design helped him better process his emotions.
“I put a face on my trauma and began to understand my emotions,” Harguindeguy said. “I was just getting into sobriety and needed to represent all that fueled my alcoholism leaving my body. It was the pain, hate, anger, guilt and depression that I dragged back from my time in service being released through a final scream.”
Harguindeguy now serves as the program director for Awaken Arts in the Greater Los Angeles area, according to his LinkedIn page. He received his bachelor’s degree in fine arts from Loyola Marymount University in 2019.
Despite anecdotes of its benefits, art therapy is still not a widely known form of treatment and is often coupled with other types of therapies like cognitive-behavioral therapy for maximum benefit. In the state of Connecticut, you can become an art therapist by completing a master’s program in art therapy (includes classroom and clinical hours) or a related field and holding a credential with the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).
“Human beings are innately creative, and all you need to do to complete an art therapy activity successfully is to be honest with yourself and your emotions,” according to Mary Ann Cohen, a longtime art dealer for MAC Fine Art. “Once you unleash your creativity, your inner artist will quickly wake up.”