Welcome to our new blog series, Creative Arts & Experiential Therapies 101.  

Our first blog in this series talks about art therapy and how it is a powerful, evidence-based form of mental health treatment. Art therapy combines principles from both artistic creation and psychotherapy to help people address emotional conflict through creating artworks such as drawings or sculptures. Whether used in individual sessions or group settings, like at Compass, this therapeutic modality can be extremely beneficial for those seeking mental health treatment. Now, let’s look at what art therapy is all about.  

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic modality that utilizes art materials and the artistic process alongside work with an art therapist within a therapeutic setting. Art materials aid clients in communicating and processing their emotions through non-verbal means. By observing the process, form, content, interests, and comments, an art therapist comprehensively assesses a client’s needs and determines treatment plans to restore, maintain or improve an individual’s mental health.  

Who can benefit from art therapy?   

Art therapy is not just for children or people with artistic backgrounds! Anyone of any age who is struggling with mental health concerns can benefit from engagement in art therapy services. Zero experience in artistic expression is needed; clients must simply be open and willing to try a form of therapy that might feel strange, new, or outside their comfort zones. Clients struggling with perfectionism or rigidity may find that the “letting go” process that naturally occurs during artmaking can aid in managing these cognitive distortions. The sensory engagement involved in artmaking additionally creates a mind-body connection that can be particularly helpful in promoting relaxation and stress reduction.    

Why is art therapy effective?  

Art therapy creates space for that which feels unspeakable; whether traumatic memories seem too acute to express safely or there are no words to represent one’s emotions accurately, this modality creates a bridge between verbal and visual communication. And because art therapy activates both sides of the brain, clients can more fully process and integrate mental and emotional experiences. Clients get space to freely experiment with symbols, colors, and abstraction—choosing to reveal as much or as little as their comfort level allows. Clients practice distress tolerance as they navigate through frustrations with the materials or the appearance of the art product. The sensory engagement with art materials can soothe, ground, and relax clients throughout the process.   

Is art therapy evidence-based?  

Although art therapy has not been studied as extensively as other modalities, such as CBT, existing research points to art therapy’s ability to help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. Artmaking and talk therapy can help clients synthesize and reinforce the skills and concepts they have learned in program. Art therapy can become another helpful tool in a client’s coping toolbox, which can also be utilized at home. Whether you are coloring a mandala coloring page or painting a detailed portrait, using art materials has proven inherently therapeutic.  

Art therapy at Compass  

Compass offers art therapy at all of our on-site locations as well as virtually. The frequency and modalities offered vary across sites and programs. These may include group, individual, and family art therapy sessions. During these sessions, art therapists provide optional prompts to guide the focus of the intervention gently. Prompts in group art therapy center around a curriculum specifically created to practice and reinforce CBT, DBT, and ACT skills. Words are reintroduced during the processing portion of the session; patients can share their artworks and experiences, fostering a sense of community and common humanity. The content and focus of individual and family art therapy sessions are tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual and family and is a collaborative and creative process.  

Art therapy is a powerful form of mental health treatment. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use, or any other mental health diagnosis, we recommend exploring art therapy to enhance your treatment. It is effective in helping people learn to express themselves beyond words and can foster healing. Art therapy is a practice that allows individuals to process difficult thoughts and feelings through creative expression. 

Learn more about our Summer Creative Arts Program, which runs from June through August 2024, in person and virtually in Illinois and Maryland, here Experiential Therapy - Creative Arts Series Blog #1 (2)


Joanna Aslanian

Senior Family Therapist, Adult Program