Art Therapy Gaining Mainstream Recognition

If you check out Amazon’s current list of best selling art books, you will find that 11 out of 20 are adult coloring books. In 2014, this list did not contain anything of the sort. In an ever-changing world full of busy people with hectic schedules, we are always looking for new ways to cope with the stresses of daily life. As of late, people seem to have picked up on a form of coping that for many may have been sitting stagnant, waiting to be recognized and utilized: art.

Adult coloring books are only a recent trend, but they are inspired by art therapy, which has roots in the 1940s. The difference is that art therapy requires an art therapist. While some may find that coloring in mandalas and intricately patterned owls has therapeutic qualities that help them relax and unwind, people who see an art therapist are typically looking to cope with something much more intense than a rough day at work.

It is an unfortunate truth that mental health is an issue that is often glazed over. When state budget cuts occur, mental health services often experience significant defunding, which can have detrimental results.

In 2011, the National Alliance on Mental Illness issued a piece in which they reported that between the years of 2009 and 2011, Illinois cut $113.7 million from its budget for mental health services for adults and children.

Numbers like this are disheartening, but they are also a reason why practices such as art therapy are so important. When traditional mental health services become less available, art therapy is something that will always be accessible.

To become a certified art therapist, a master’s degree is required from an institution of higher education that is approved by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, according to the American Art Therapy Association. Educational requirements include many elements, some of which are ethics and standards of practice, individual, group and family art therapy techniques, multicultural issues and internship experiences.

Mary Andrus, art therapist and founder of Art Therapy Studio Chicago, Ltd., works with clients who are coping with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, and depression.

In a phone interview, Andrus spoke about art therapy being a visual language, saying: “When a traumatic event happens, the hippocampus shuts down and you don’t have any narrative to describe what’s happening, but you have all this sensory experience. Art is amazing because you’re able to really access that sensory aspect and then put words around your experience.”

Eventually, this will lead to a client being able to rebuild and move into a mental place that allows them to move past a traumatic event.

An important part about art therapy is choosing the right medium for a patient to work with. Andrus said that the therapist must choose a material that will represent safety for a client and help them feel in control. She explained this using clay and pencils as an example.

“The pencil creates a separation between self and object, whereas the clay is kind of like an extension of yourself,” Andrus began. “Somebody who may feel out of control and dysregulated, you would not give them clay because it might be emotionally overwhelming to try to make something that is really messy.”

Aside from budget cuts, some people who need proper mental health care do not receive it because they don’t feel as though they can reach out for help. Andrus believes this is because there is a lot of shame and stigma surrounding mental illness.

“There’s no shame in having depression or anxiety or whatever is happening, and that label holds so much weight. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with asking for support, so I think it’s unfortunate that society tends to in some ways shame people who have difficulty managing mental and emotional instability,” Andrus said.

Andrus also noted that anyone could benefit from art therapy, saying, “I think that we’re all creative and we’re all artists, and it may not be nurtured in everyone.”

Kailee Davis* is a 22-year-old artist who uses her work as a way of coping with troublesome times in her life. As a child, Davis experienced undisclosed trauma. Through art, she has managed to survive the crippling times when the past continues to plague her life. Her preferred medium is paint, which she said has therapeutic qualities because the brush strokes can be as fluid or as brash as she needs them to be.

“It kind of puts you into a meditative state where it’s almost like you’re grounding yourself into something that makes sense to you, but only you, so it helps you heal [and] get an emotion out,” Davis explained.

Awakenings Foundation Center and Gallery is a foundation and gallery that displays artwork made by survivors of sexual abuse. Liz Moretti, gallery manager, explained what the foundation aims to do and discussed the importance of art for individuals who have been affected by sexual abuse.

“The Awakenings Foundation is a private operating foundation dedicated to making visible the creative expression of survivors of sexual violence,” Moretti said in an email. “We bring our mission to life by offering a wide variety of programming year round, ranging from performances, to exhibit openings, to panel discussions.”

Moretti explained that, much like Davis and her paintings, the work displayed at Awakenings Foundation is art as therapy, rather than art therapy.

“Until an artist sees the work in front of them, they don’t always completely understand elements of their trauma,” Moretti said. “Something changes when you’re able to put your experiences in front of you to see more clearly, instead of just holding it inside.”

The idea of using art as therapy may not be new, but it remains somewhat obscure. Because art can be so beneficial in everything from treating mental illnesses to healing from traumatic events, Andrus hopes that art therapy continues to make progress in being accepted and seen as a viable method for getting help.

* Name has been changed.