Art Therapy

According to the American Art Therapy Association, the field of Art Therapy is described as “an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families, and communities through active art-making, creative process, applied psychological theory, and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship. Art Therapy, facilitated by a professional Art Therapist, effectively supports personal and relational treatment goals as well as community concerns. Art Therapy is used to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.” So, the field of Art Therapy can involve a diverse array of two-dimensional and three-dimensional arts-centered activities with varying goals and objectives! Also, art-based therapies are sometimes viewed as part of a spectrum of “Expressive Therapy” formats which also include Music Therapy and others.

In one sense, Art Therapy professionals are just like any other mental health professional insofar as they connect well with others, have strong communication and empathy skills, value the healing power of a psychotherapeutic relationship, and are trained in various aspects of the science of mental health–including assessment, diagnostics, and evidence-based treatment models. However, they are unique in that they also infuse art into the way they approach clients. A common aspect of their philosophy is that “our first language is symbols.” In other words, various Art Therapy directives and art media (with the safety and support of the therapeutic relationship) are used to invite the client to express thoughts or feelings in ways which are perhaps less constrained than through traditional talk therapy. The artistic process, whether it may involve painting with oils, drawing with pencils, working with clay, or other modes, can allow clients to share and reflect upon cognitions and affect which might be otherwise difficult to articulate or tolerate. Art Therapists are professionals who utilize their knowledge and experience of theory and applications of both psychotherapy/counseling and usage of artistic materials, and importantly the intersections between these. Their daily work experiences can vary widely, serving a plethora of populations and many types of presenting concerns, but art is a consistent component of the helping process.

Art Therapists work in a variety of settings including outpatient clinics, group practices, agencies, hospitals, and more! They are often (but not always) part of an integrated treatment team alongside other specialists including social workers, psychologists, physicians, etc., and they often (but again not always) incorporate grant-writing into their common work activities. This latter point about grant-writing and seeking funding is important because many of their treatment centers are supported by state or federal moneys and need ongoing advocacy to remain active. For more ideas about job settings, check out MAAT’s job postings list.

In order to become an Art Therapist, the minimum degree level required is a Master’s. Choice of undergraduate degree and major prior to graduate school is flexible, as there are not many bachelor’s programs specifically on the topic of Art Therapy (e.g., a common route would be to double-major in both Art and Psychology). At the master’s level, as there are not many master’s degrees specifically titled “Art Therapy,” two common options are a Master’s of Education (MEd) and a Master’s of Arts in Counseling (MA), with an Art Therapy “concentration,” “specialization,” or some other term indicating the key focus of the education.
License: There is currently at the time of writing (2022) no such thing as a state-sanctioned license to practice Art Therapy in Michigan (but some other states do have this). Depending upon one’s graduate program and training, an Art Therapist may also possess a license in another mental health capacity (e.g., Counselor (LPC)) which could be important for insurance and billing purposes, as well as diversifying the range of activities/services they can conduct as part of their career. However, that would be a totally separate process through LARA, which does not currently recognize and govern Art Therapy as a profession here in Michigan.
Certification: While no license exists in Michigan, there is a process for attaining official approval as an Art Therapist. To become a “Registered Art Therapist” (typically abbreviated “ATR” alongside someone’s name), one needs to complete an approved graduate program in Art Therapy which includes a 700-hour supervised practicum, and then complete a post-education supervised Art Therapy clinical work experience totaling at least 1000 supervised hours. Then, to become a “Board Certified Art Therapist” (typically abbreviated “ATR-BC” alongside someone’s name), which is the highest level credential, one must pass the national Art Therapy Credentials Board Examination (ATCBE). At the international level, there is also the title “Registered Expressive Arts Therapist” (REAT). Jobs in Art Therapy vary with regard to the required certification level, as the field is still early in its process of organization.
Training: Here in Michigan, Wayne State University offers both an MEd and an MA in Art Therapy. [Note that the MA would also allow someone to pursue licensure as a Counselor (LPC), whereas the MEd does not yield license-eligibility, and this may be important for some students depending upon career plans.] Outside Michigan, numerous other schools offer relevant graduate programs, and you can see a list here.
***The AATA’s FAQ Page may also be helpful for navigating some of the common “how” questions.***

Art Therapy professionals are motivated by their intersecting passions for mental health and beliefs in the healing power of arts. If you’ve ever noticed that spending time painting helped you relax, or that a piece of art evoked a strong emotion from you, or that engaging in a creative process helped you to better understand and articulate some difficulty you were facing–then perhaps you have experienced some of the things which drive Art Therapists to do the important work they do. For some more inspiration, check out the ATAA’s “Story Library.”

Relevant State-Level Organization
Michigan Association of Art Therapy

Relevant National Organization
American Art Therapy Association
Art Therapy Credentials Board
Accreditation Council for Art Therapy Education

Relevant International Organization
International Expressive Arts Therapy Association