Art Therapy: How Creative Expression Can Heal

Art therapy is using art and creativity to express emotional pain. It is guided by a trained or licensed art therapist. Art therapy can help both children and adults as they heal from many conditions. These conditions may be mental or physical. They may include stress, trauma, depression, anxiety, cancer, stroke, or other serious conditions.

How Is Art Therapy Used?

Art therapy helps people express feelings, learn social skills, and solve problems. It also can help ease anxiety and emotional conflicts. This may be done with special methods. Some methods may be unstructured. A client may get to choose their art materials, such as paint, pastels, or clay. They can then make art in any way that they want. Through their art, they can express things that they have kept deep inside. The therapist might then ask the client to draw a family picture. This can help them learn more about their family relationships. Their art may show unhealthy behaviors or poor communication.

Art therapy can be used in groups of people with similar problems. For example, people with cancer might create a picture collage together. The collage might then be used to talk about coping.

Art therapy is also helpful for people who are elderly, disabled, or cannot talk. They can express themselves with free drawing, mask-making, and finger painting. Through art they may review their life, express regrets, or cope with loss. Art can help them deal with aging, grief, and fear of death.

Where is Art Therapy Used?

Art therapists must have at least a master's degree and supervised training. They may practice alone or work as part of a care team. They practice in a many settings, such as:

  • Mental health centers and clinics
  • Hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and hospices
  • Prisons
  • Nursing homes and senior centers
  • Schools and children's programs
  • Disaster relief centers and homeless shelters
  • Drug and alcohol treatment programs

Art therapy may be done in individual or group sessions. It is used with people of all ages, races, and cultures. They may have:

  • Schizophrenia, depression, and other mental illnesses
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder—caused by natural disasters, upsetting events, or abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Long term pain, health problems, or a fatal illness
  • Family issues

How It Might Work

Art therapists believe that creativity and healing may come from the same place.

Art therapy is not merely arts and crafts, or just for fun. It helps clients use their senses. It teaches them to use objects on purpose—to express their pain with the outside world. Art therapy eases stress, speeds up healing time, and improves communication.

If you think art therapy may be for you, talk with your doctor. You can also find out about art therapists from the American Art Therapy Association website.


American Art Therapy Association
Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc.


Canadian Art Therapy Association


About art therapy. American Art Therapy Association website. Available at: Accessed June 9, 2021.
Chiang M, Reid-Varley WB, et al. Creative art therapy for mental illness. Psychiatry Res. 2019;275:129-136.
Stroke rehabilitation in adults. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Accessed June 9, 2021
Using art therapy to cope with cancer. Patient Empowerment Network website. Available at: Accessed June 9, 2021.
Last reviewed June 2021 by EBSCO Medical Review Board
Last Updated: 6/9/2021

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