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Art Therapist

Overview

Art therapy is an established mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of people at all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness and achieve insight.

Art therapy integrates the fields of human development, visual arts and the creative process with models of counseling and psychotherapy. Art therapy is used with children, adolescents, adults, older adults, groups and families to assess and treat:

  • Anxiety, depression and other mental/emotional problems
  • Mental illness
  • Substance abuse and other addictions
  • Family and relationship issues
  • Abuse and domestic violence
  • Social/emotional difficulties related to disability or illness
  • Personal trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder and loss
  • Physical, cognitive and neurological problems
  • Psychosocial difficulties related to medical illness

Some art therapists work as part of a health care team that includes physicians, psychologists, nurses, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, rehabilitation counselors, social workers and teachers. Together, they determine and implement a client’s therapeutic goals and objectives. Other art therapists work independently and maintain private practices with children, adolescents, adults, groups and/or families.

If you’re considering this career, keep in mind that an art therapist needs certain personal qualities – such as sensitivity, empathy, emotional stability, patience, interpersonal skills, insight into human behavior and an understanding of artistic media. An art therapist must be an attentive listener and a keen observer. Flexibility and a sense of humor are also invaluable.

For more information about pursuing this career, see the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) website.

Working Conditions

Art therapists work in a wide variety of settings -- including, to name a few:

  • Hospitals and clinics, both medical and psychiatric
  • Outpatient mental health agencies and day treatment facilities
  • Residential treatment centers
  • Halfway houses
  • Domestic violence and homeless shelters
  • Community agencies and nonprofit settings
  • Sheltered workshops
  • Schools, colleges and universities
  • Correctional facilities
  • Elder care facilities
  • Art studios
  • Private practice

Salaries for art therapists vary widely, according to a 2009 survey conducted by the American Medical Association. Salaries for those just beginning in the career are generally around $30,000 to $40,000 while those with experience may earn salaries over $100,000. Keep in mind that salaries will vary considerably, depending on experience, location and type of practice.

Academic Requirements

Art therapists must have a master's degree in art therapy or counseling or a related field with an emphasis in art therapy and must complete the required core curriculum as outlined in the American Art Therapy Association's (AATA) education standards.

AATA-approved art therapy programs generally consist of 48 to 60 semester credits (or approximately 18 months to 2 years of full-time education). The typical curriculum includes:

  • History and theory of art therapy
  • Techniques or practice in art therapy
  • Application of art therapy with people in different treatment settings
  • Understanding of group art therapy and counseling methods and skills
  • Ethical and legal issues of art therapy practice
  • Art therapy assessment
  • Standards of practice in art therapy
  • Cultural and social diversity
  • Thesis or culminating project

In addition, each art therapy student must complete a practicum or internship, involving a minimum of 700 hours of supervised art therapy practice, at least half of which must be spent working directly with patients in individual, group or family formats.  There also are opportunities for specialization (i.e., specific patient age groups, practice settings and types of intervention).

AATA maintains a list of approved schools.

After receiving a master's degree in art therapy, accumulating the required number of supervised hours and submitting professional references attesting to your competency, you may apply to become a registered art therapist (ATR) through the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB).  After being granted the ATR, you then can sit for the board certification (ATR-BC) examination. The exam is offered once a year at various locations throughout the United States.