Many people are enchanted by a simple theory: creating art that expresses hidden feelings alongside an art therapist can be just as effective, if not more effective than traditional psychotherapy.
Hundreds of clinics in the United States offer “art therapy” to patients with medical conditions including PTSD, eating disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and postpartum depression. In these treatments, licensed art therapists, who are required to have a master’s degree in art therapy from one of 19 accredited programs, guide the patient in creating a drawing, painting, or sculpture, and talk with the patient about how that art expresses their feelings.
Juliet King, an associate professor of art therapy at George Washington University, said that the treatment “tap[s] into aspects of the self and the psyche that aren’t always accessible.”
Similarly, one art therapy clinic in Alexandria, Virginia, says on its website that “Using art creates the opportunity to delve into the unconscious and parts of the brain in which words do not exist.
“Parts of the brain in which words do not exist” is typical terminology of the unscientific discipline of art therapy. Zero scientific studies have demonstrated that art therapy is effective in treating mental illness.
A 2018 review of the available literature on the effectiveness of art therapy for adults in the journal Frontiers in Psychology concluded: “There is insufficient research in the field and the differences between studies and the indices measured are so great that it was impossible to produce a meta-analysis that would yield meaningful results.” The researchers added that some of the limited case studies “seem to suggest” the treatments are effective.
A 2012 review in the Scandinavian Journal of Psychology on art therapy conducted with patients with psychosomatic disorders or eating disorders similarly concluded that there is not enough research to demonstrate that art therapy is effective in treating those conditions.
But despite the lack of evidence, art therapists advertise themselves as a viable alternative to psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy for patients with severe mental health problems. Many of these patients may be helped by creating a therapeutic piece of art. The problem emerges when a patient who needs medical help for a mental health condition turns to “art therapy” instead of treatments that have been shown to be effective, especially when they are not properly informed about the lack of scientific proof for the effectiveness of art therapy. Numerous scientific studies of psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy have shown that these methods can be effective in treating many disorders.
Universities are making a huge profit from programs in art therapy, particularly from young women who are enchanted by the idea that art can heal people. Nineteen universities offer master’s degree programs in art therapy, while at least 15 offer undergraduate degrees in the discipline.
The training to be an art therapist includes studio art courses as well as psychology courses. New York University offers an art therapy master’s degree for the small price of $112,000. Entry-level art therapists can expect to make around $35,000 — that is, if they can get a job.
Some people who graduate with a degree in art therapy struggle to find a job in the field.
Vanessa Love, who graduated with a master’s degree in art therapy, created a Youtube video in which she complained, “I thought that I would be able to get clients. I thought that I would be able to practice outside of my home. . . . Finding a job is pretty tough.”
Love added, “Of the 70 people that I graduated with, about 10 have jobs in the helping field. Some of [those 10] have the title ‘art therapist.’”
“You have a class of 70 people and even more looking for art therapy jobs,” she said, “and everyone is applying for like the three that are available.
While there are concerns about an unproven treatment method that is used to treat serious conditions, art therapy can often be harmless, as it is often sought out by wealthy, female, liberal clients who are seeking a growth experience.
Consider how the founder of that art therapy clinic in Alexandria, Virginia, advertises her services: “Adele works with individuals in the LGBTQIA+ community who are experiencing stress related to the birthing and parenting process. . . . After becoming a mother, she felt a calling to support birthing and parenting people who are struggling during fertility, pregnancy and postpartum experiences. Adele uses the creative process to help you find your authentic voice, tap into inner power and feel good.”
The American Association of Art Therapists, the organization which promotes the art therapist profession in the United States, promotes art therapy’s effectiveness with people who have disorders, as well as for people who are simply seeking a “spiritual” or “creative” experience. The organization says: “Honoring individuals’ values and beliefs, art therapists work with people who are challenged with medical and mental health problems, as well as individuals seeking emotional, creative, and spiritual growth.”
Art therapy is essentially based on a hunch that creating art can be therapeutic. As the American Association of Art Therapists summarizes, “People intuitively understand the mental health benefits of art making.”
The art therapy profession would be better off focusing on providing a growth experience than trying to make an arts and crafts session a singular treatment for serious mental health problems.