Art therapy is a form of mental health treatment designed to help clients overcome their most pressing psychological issues through the emotional release and heightened self-awareness provided by the process of creating original art. The discipline’s guiding principle holds that, by expressing themselves in a concrete way, clients can come to better appreciate and respond to their various conditions or, at the very least, clarify relevant issues for the therapists who will guide their subsequent treatment plans.
Many patients—particularly younger individuals or those with communication issues—simply lack the ability to express their emotional needs and sensations through traditional dialogue, and art therapy may open previously unexplored venues for those who desperately need to communicate. Exercises in drawing, painting, sculpture, and other forms of predominately visual art can lead to a keener sense of self-analysis and provide a source of stress relief and personal satisfaction. The emotional content of artwork often proves its most riveting factor, and a client’s selected subject matter, along with elements as subtle as color choices and the force of various marks, can provide significant clues regarding the issues most relevant to individual clients.
Many patients are best served by a traditional combination of personal therapy and medication and will not find art to be particularly helpful in a therapeutic context, but it can provide some, particularly young children, the heavily traumatized and the developmentally disabled, with a method of conveying their otherwise inexpressible frustrations and emotional turmoil. Therapists can more accurately plot a troubled child’s course of treatment if they’re able to draw information from the images that he or she creates. Art therapy can also serve as a guide to an affected child’s cognitive state and the educational approaches that would prove most beneficial. Practitioners often have backgrounds in the education field as well.
Art therapy remains something of a fringe discipline with less than 5,000 qualified practitioners in the U.S. Many are professional artists who use their appreciation of art’s emotional components as a tool by which to treat others. But it is gaining in popularity, and it is hardly an amateur pursuit: related degrees exist at major institutions, and most qualified art therapists have been trained in both the therapeutic practice and the production of art itself. In the interest of imposing strict professional standards on the practice at large, the American Art Therapy Association created a Credentials Board through which every qualified professional must register. This certification requires not only related academic degrees but a minimum of 1,000 hours working directly with clients in the field.
The fact that art, by its very nature, remains open to an endless variety of interpretations when not explained by the artist him/herself clouds the field somewhat, but several established art-based assessment tests exist:
- The Draw-A-Man-Test measures intelligence and identifies the presence of developmental disorders in children based on their completion of assigned drawings. Attention to detail often reveals intelligence and emotional responsiveness while a tendency to linger compulsively over a composition denotes the same behavioral symptoms.
- The Diagnostic Drawing Test requires clients to draw assigned objects before making representative drawings of their choosing in order to convey their emotional states to the viewer.
- The House-Tree-Person centers on clients drawing the items in question and submitting to subsequent lines of questioning regarding the intent and emotional relevance of the same subjects.
- The Mandala Assessment Research Instrument consists of a card-based exercise in which clients choose a card from a given deck and reproduce the images on said card, commenting on any emotional sensations drawn from the composition. The test’s designer claims that essential elements of a client’s personality may be deduced from their card choices and subsequent drawings.