What is Art Therapy and How Can It Help MeArt Therapy: Is it Art, Therapy, or Both? Survivors and Experts Describe the Process

“I was suffering from an eating disorder, and when I ended up in a hospital, at a dangerously low weight and with a heart rate to match, I struggled to comprehend what was happening. Why was I doing this? Why was I so intent on destroying myself?” a young woman writes. When words failed her, her interest in art opened a door: “A coherent explanation evaded me, and so in desperation I proceeded to draw, write, paint and take photos. Recovery is a complicated business, and sometimes images, objects and abstract verse were the only way I could make sense of what was going on inside my head. Art was a central part of my recovery from an eating disorder, and has enabled me to better understand myself.”

What is Art Therapy and How It Can Help Me

As art therapist Cathy Malchiodi explains in Psychology Today, “Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses art materials, such as paints, drawing, clay, collage and even digital media such as photography and tablet technology. Art therapy combines traditional psychotherapeutic theories and techniques with psychological, interpersonal and somatic aspects of the creative process and self-expression.” In mental health treatment, she writes, art therapy is used in many clinical settings, with diverse populations that include children, teens, adults, and families. As a part of integrated health care, she points out that art therapy and expressive arts therapy, such as art, music, drama, movement, and writing complement and support traditional practices and interventions.

Dr. Malchiodi’s definition is based on the specific aspects that separate art therapy from art for self-help or personal art activities that serve as a diversion. These aspects include the following:

1) Art therapy is an interpersonal experience in which a therapist facilitates, guides, witnesses and responds to an individual’s art process and art expressions, based on best practices and current and emerging research.

2) Art therapy is different than self-help experiences in that there is a guiding professional and an individual [family or group] seeking assistance from a therapist to make changes. The relationship between a therapist, an individual, and the art process and art products is essential to art therapy and includes purposeful dialogue and specific therapeutic interventions in response to both process and product.

3) Current and emerging research in mind-body medicine, allied health and integrative healthcare demonstrates that art therapy is an effective, health-enhancing intervention and form of treatment.

How It Works

According to the AATA, the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy, under the guidance of trained professionals, can be incorporated in a wide variety of settings. These include treatment programs, hospitals, wellness centers, forensic institutions, schools, crisis centers, senior communities, private practice, and other clinical and community settings. During individual or group sessions, art therapists can engage young people with mental health issues in art projects to enhance their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Research supports the use of art therapy within professional relationships. Many patients cite the therapeutic benefits they gained through artistic self-expression when dealing with mental illness, trauma, and personal growth.

Who Benefits from Art Therapy?

When practiced as a form of empowerment, art therapy can be an effective tool for young people when communication becomes difficult. The old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words is true. When words fail, art can help us heal. It may offer way to break past the limits of depression, dementia, anxiety, autism, brain injuries, cancer, or other health disabilities.

Peace Through Art

Because art activities may initially be seen as less threatening, carefully selected exercises can provide a means to help patients see intense issues more clearly. In this way, art therapy helps to:

  • resolve conflicts
  • improve interpersonal skills
  • manage problematic behaviors
  • reduce negative stress
  • achieve personal insight

Art therapy can also be fun or relaxing. This added bonus can actually be quite significant to someone struggling with the challenges of a serious mental disorder. In addition to the therapy aspect, art therapy provides an opportunity to enjoy the life-affirming simple pleasure of making art.

Other Forms of Creative Arts Therapy

In a comprehensive treatment program, CAT, or Creative Arts Therapy, can encompass a multitude of arts-based therapies. Along with drawing, painting and sculpture, these may include music, writing, role-playing, and drama activities. CAT is the most widely employed, and typically, the most varied in art-based forms of therapies. Most often, creative arts therapies focus on generating insight through the use of symbolism.

A few examples of CAT include:

  • Diagnostic drawing
  • Interpretive content
  • Improvisation
  • Role playing

Many CAT techniques are based in developmental psychology, and designed explore the root causes of eating disorders, or other mental health disorders, that stem from early childhood. In these modalities, role-play and dramatization may be encouraged to help patients develop insight into the development of their disorder.

Integrated treatment programs may incorporate goal-oriented creative therapies to encourage:

  • Self-discovery
  • Self-exploration
  • Self-expression

By offering a way to address challenging issues such as self-esteem, body image, depression, or isolation, creative therapies can provide a “healthy outlet for expression of emotions and help someone develop positive coping skills.

Non-threatening, alternative forms of therapy can expedite change for teens and adolescents that have difficulty with traditional forms of therapy.

Can Art Save Your Life?

One patient, who clearly feels that art gave her recovery a huge boost, puts it this way: “Only a year ago my life was very different indeed. It was a cold, dark and scary place, an existence that revolved around exercise, starvation, binging and vomiting. I was deeply unhappy, and the only means of expression I seemed able or willing to utilize, was self destruction. I wanted to die, and I very nearly did.”

“In the grip of my disorder, I drew and painted emaciated human figures,” she says. “Idols to which I aspired. Expressions of what I wanted to be, how I wanted to look, and the internal suffering that I wanted to use my outer body to convey. Later on, in recovery, I used art to interpret my complex and often seemingly incomprehensible feelings, and towards the end of my journey, I used it to reflect on where I had come from, and what I had become.”

Keeping Track to Stay on Course

Sometimes, the artwork that patients produce has a life of its own. A few years ago, art therapists and their clients hosted a group art show at a popular gallery in New Orleans. Some survivors write songs. The young woman described here shared samples of her work in a forthcoming book. “Mine is a positive story,” she writes. “An explanation of how a shy, negative and depressed girl, terrified of growing up, blossoms into a confident, positive and colorful young woman who realizes that there is more to life than she had ever imagined before.”

Looking Back and Moving Forward

“Publishing a book was never the outcome I anticipated,” the woman says. She originally wanted to keep a record for herself, and offer an explanation for her close friends and family. But as she shared her artwork, she felt that it not only helped people understand her and her disorder, it also reassured others with mental health disorders and reminded them that they were not alone. “The process of compiling my artistic representations was therapeutic in itself, and the resulting book has become a lasting part of my recovery.”

A Portrait of Recovery

“I want to raise awareness of eating disorders and the brutal reality of a life dominated by food and weight,” says this art therapy advocate. “Ultimately, however, I want to give hope to others, [to show them] that recovery is possible, and life is worth living. In publicly displaying my artistic interpretations, I want share my escape from the monster that nearly consumed me, and show that eating disorders can be beaten.

A Creative Approach to Healing

If someone you love is struggling with the symptoms of an eating disorder, depression, anxiety, or a behavior disorder, call Center For Discovery now at 800.760.3934. Our personalized behavior modification programs are tailored to fit your needs. Creative therapies, such as art, music, dance, drama, and movement exercises are frequently integrated into our comprehensive treatment plans. Center For Discovery provides integrated multi-faceted levels of care that range from residential treatment, intensive outpatient treatment, to partial hospitalization for adolescents, teens, and adults that are struggling with eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, and most major mental health disorders.

Call Us at 800.760.3934

We’ve been helping families find their way to lifelong recovery for nearly 20 years. Call now and speak with one of our highly trained admission specialists today. All calls are completely FREE and completely confidential.




Psychology Today: Defining Art Therapy in the 21st Century, by Cathy Malchiodi PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT. Retrieved November 2, 2016.

CathyMalchiodi.com: What is Art Therapy? Retrieved November 2, 2016.

Art Therapy Blog: A creative interpretation of my recovery from an eating disorder. Retrieved November 2, 2016.

American Art Therapy Association: What is Art Therapy? Retrieved November 2, 2016.