Art Therapy: How Art Can Heal


Of course throughout history art has been used (or perhaps misused) for purposes such as advertising or even propaganda, but consistently the majority of art is created for art’s own sake, that is to say predominately for the purpose of self-expression or to communicate some kind of idea.


But that is not the only purpose for art! Originally pioneered by various psychologists in the early 20th century across Europe and North America, the term ‘Art Therapy’ was first coined by the British artist Adrian Hill, who realized the therapeutic benefits of drawing and painting while in quarantine recovering from tuberculosis, who described it as helping to build a “strong defence against his misfortunes,” and recommended it to other patients. After he and other artists evangelized the benefits of Art Therapy it began to become popular among psychologists, and by 1964 the British Association of Art Therapists was founded. Similar institutions, such as the American Art Therapy Association, were founded not long after in other nations around the world including South Korea, Sweden, Japan, Canada, and Brazil.


It should come as no surprise that art has such a potential to heal because of it’s deeply emotional and creative aspects, which are frequently hidden well inside our minds in the realm of the subconscious. Many of the elements of creating art can have a meditative quality to it, and leverages the artist's ability to focus and be mindful of their emotional feelings. The truth is that the practice of mindfulness and awareness is a very valuable life-skill that benefits everyone, regardless of whether that person is suffering from some kind of mental condition or not.


Art Therapy has been and is used by psychologists or other mental health professionals in a variety of contexts with various kinds of patients, including those some kind of post-traumatic stress such as surviving a disaster, returning from war (for example, art therapy was first used in the US to help treat combat veterans returning home from fighting in WWII), or experiencing some kind of terrifying incident, and has been used to help patients cope with stress during cancer treatment. Art therapy has also been used for patients experiencing dementia and schizophrenia, and as a way of combating depression, particularly among the elderly and children, or those who have lost a loved one or suffer from an eating disorder.


Any kind of art can be utilized in the art therapy process, such as sculpting, photography, journaling and digital art, though in most cases it comes in the form of painting or drawing. Typically the therapist or mental health professional will give basic instructions, and often some kind of prompt to the patient to set them in the right direction. Usually the therapist will be mostly hands-off with the patient while they are creating, because it’s important to avoid influencing what the patient creates. In this context there isn’t a ‘wrong way’ for the patient to create art because that’s not what the process is about, it’s about healing, not creating something superficially attractive to other people.


In summary, art therapy is a very valuable tool for mental professionals to help their patients cope with a wide variety of conditions whether it be related to a physical or mental disease. That being said, you don’t need to be suffering from any particular condition in order to benefit from the therapeutic aspects of art, you can always take up painting or drawing just to help relax and unwind from a stressful day at work. Anyone can benefit from it!