The Underrated Power of Art Therapy

by The Dyás Admin

Art therapy is sometimes dismissed as a pseudo treatment, or a weaker version of ‘serious’ psychotherapy. Some say it's only effective with young children, and that it consists of colouring books and self-indulgent splashing of paint in abstract patterns. But these are misconceptions.


I’ve always nurtured an interest in the human condition and  the complexity of individualised mental health treatment. Art therapy offers a fascinating alternative to talking therapy on a  fundamental level by being image-based - and while art may not always appear to be an easy medium to access, there's an argument to be made that our understanding of art is built into our psychology (look at how long humans have been painting for).

I also have a personal investment in this form of treatment - mMy Mum has worked as an art therapist for most of my life and we’ve had numerous discussions digging into why she thinks it's an approach that does really work. She works with adults and young children, often pre-teens, who struggle with their mental wellbeing. Although children are generally more receptive to images and symbols, art therapy is also highly effective in improving the emotional state and quality of life of adult PTSD sufferers, cancer patients, and those struggling with their mental health day-to-day. Interestingly, there is a consistency in how art therapy is applied across these age ranges and varying conditions. 

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a common form of talking therapy, often forms a basis for art-based treatment. The psychologist Albert Ellis propounded the idea behind CBT in the 1950s when he suggested that emotional responses to external stimuli are more linked to thoughts and feelings about an event than the direct experience of it. CBT is treatment that focuses on shifting a person’s patterns of thoughts and feelings to improve their perception of the world around them. Art therapy can also function as a distinctly un-self-conscious medium of expression for these thoughts and feelings. 

Crucially, art therapy is distinct from recreational art making or taking part in an art class. These creative endeavours can certainly provide soothing benefits, but they lack the focus of a therapy session. Within a therapy setting, an art therapist's responsibility is the same as that of a talking therapist: to focus on the patient, help them reflect on issues and grow towards positive change. If talking therapy is focused on one form of human expression (language), then, rather than being an inferior or more juvenile form of mental health treatment, art therapy is simply its counterpart for the medium of image-based and visual expression. 

As a psychiatric practice, art therapy also has roots in Carl Jung’s ideas about the subconscious. Jung believed that traumas or mental blocks could hide in the individual’s unconscious mind, affecting their ability to handle daily life in a way that is not easily treatable. Jung wrote about the power of archetypal symbols in drawing out these unconsciously held ideas, and highlighted core symbols that are said to appeal to a collective human memory. Symbols like the child, the shadow, or the animal can instigate a profound outpouring of self-expression, he postulated. 

In Jung’s essay, On The Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetic Art, he wrote of  a form of expression that “achieves its aim without the assistance of human consciousness, and often defies it by wilfully insisting on its own form and effect.” Especially in the case of deeply held traumas like PTSD, this kind of expression can be incremental in opening avenues for psychiatric treatment. It’s easy to see how the channeling of internal emotional states into creating images, collages, or multimedia objects might result in revelations impossible through language. 

It’s also an idea that’s backed by neurological science. The amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for processing emotions, is also responsible for processing sensory and image-based input. Naturally, working through complex emotional states by creating non-verbal images is a noteworthy basis for psychological aid. 

Something I find particularly interesting about art therapy is its capacity for provoking less self-censoring than other, more traditional therapeutic methods.Where disorders such as anxiety, depression, OCD and BPD populate the mainstream and abound on social media platforms, it can also be tempting to diagnose and label yourself based on vague symptoms. But both of these pitfalls are antithetical to truly effective mental health treatment, which I believe is grounded in honestly exploring the unique complexity of someone’s inner world. Especially in such cases as these, art therapy can be powerful in its capacity for tapping into unconscious patterns of thought and behaviour and uncovering suppressed memories and emotions that are particular to the individual. 

While it might not quite have the edge over talking therapy, I think creative treatments for mental health such as art therapy should be used a great degree more, at the very least in conjunction with traditional methods. Other creative treatments such as music and dance therapy can also be invaluable. This is why programs like Arts on Prescription, which prescribe creative activities alongside conventional medicinal care, are essential and in my opinion should absolutely be more readily available.


Words by Eleanor Burleigh



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