The integration of artistic methods to treat psychological disorders and enhance mental health is known as art therapy or art psychotherapy.  According to the American Art Therapy Association, “Art Therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.”  To improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being, is a goal of art therapy.  To accomplish this, the art therapist is required to possess knowledge of visual art (drawing,painting, sculpture, and other art forms) and the creative process, as well as of human development, psychological,and counseling theories and techniques.

Art Therapy can be an effective tool in mental health treatment because it is an expressive medium.  Art can be used to help clients communicate, overcome stress, and explore different aspects of their own personalities.

Art therapy integrates psychotherapeutic techniques with the creative process to improve mental health and well-being.  The American Art Therapy Association describes art therapy as “a mental health profession that uses the creative process of art making to improve and enhance the physical, mental and emotional well-being of individuals of all ages. It is based on the belief that the creative process involved in artistic self-expression helps people to resolve conflicts and problems, develop interpersonal skills, manage behavior, reduce stress, increase self-esteem and self-awareness, and achieve insight.”

Art Therapy with Children and Teens

The role of art therapy in education has been explored by several scholars (Bush, 1997; Frosting & Essex, 1996; Isis, Bush & Siegel, 2010; Karkou, 2010; Moriya, 2000; Nelson, 2010; Rosal, McCulloch-Vislisel & Neece, 1997; Ross, 1997).  Despite differences in implementation and the diverse spectrum of the population serviced, art therapy in the context of education has the potential to meet the unique needs of students.  Miami-Dade County Public Schools pioneered the integration of art therapy in schools in the late 1970s, “helping students with emotional and behavioral disabilities become more receptive to academic involvement while maximizing their social and emotional potential” (Isis, Bush, Siegel & Ventura, 2010, p.56).  Since its inception in the 1979-1980 academic year, art therapy in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools has “adjusted to the various transitions inherent in 30 years of practice within the fourth largest school district in the United States” (p.59).  In its current condition Miami-Dade County Public Schools offers students with emotional and/or behavioral disabilities weekly individual and/or group sessions that focus on the student’s social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive needs.  Students are evaluated through the administration of the Levick Emotional and Cognitive Art Therapy Assessment (LECATA) and/or the Silver Drawing Test and must meet specific criteria before beginning therapy.  These assessments inform the treatment team which includes the classroom teacher, the school clinician or counselor, and the art therapist in developing and achieving the goals of the students’ Individualized Education Plan (IEP).  According to Isis, Bush, Siegel and Ventura (2010), despite the numerous changes experienced by the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Clinical Art Therapy Department in over 30 years of practice, the focus of empowering students through creativity has been an effective approach in solidifying its place within special education.

Art Therapy in School (Behavioral Difficulties)

Nelson (2010) discussed the history and development of a creative arts therapy program with the Jersey City Public Schools.  Aside from the challenges surrounding creative arts therapy and public education, Nelson (2010) explored the integration of therapy and academics, professional collaboration and flexibility, community music and art expression as well as benefits of using art to help foster staff cohesion and community building.  According to Nelson (2010), Jersey City Public Schools offered two art therapy based programs for children who displayed physically aggressive behaviors, emotional outbursts, decreased verbal communications, bullying, self-injurious behavior, inability to focus, and suicidal ideation.

Nelson (2010) supported the implementation of art therapy in Jersey City Public Schools by grounding theoretical principals in the work of scholars such as Riley (1999), and Prout and Brown (2007) who maintained that adolescents often find therapy to be an imposed form of torture.  Both Riley (1999) and Prout and Brown (2007) acknowledged that adolescents are well defended, street smart, and not tolerant of inauthentic attempts by adults to “pry” (p.18) into their belief systems and issues.  Riley (1999), attributed the creative ability of art therapy to respond to the students’ realities and allow them the room to explore uncertainty and flexibility as a major factor that can lead to a successful intervention.

According to the Illinois Children’s Mental Health Task Force (2003), 70% to 80% of Chicago Public School children in need of help do not receive appropriate and necessary mental health services.  As a result of those facts, Art Therapy Connections (ATC), an inner city, year-long school-based art therapy program in Chicago, IL, was created to service the mental health needs of students identified as being at risk of failing grades 3-12 and to encourage students to stay in school.  As the students create art, they develop a language of expression (Sutherland, Waldman & Collins 2010).  Art Therapy Connections focused on increasing student concentration, self-control, enhancing interpersonal skills, diffusing feelings of anger, and providing students with a method of self-exploration.  Respecting and accepting students’ creative expression, validating their right to be angry, sad or frustrated can help them feel more connected with the community and possibly help raise their self-esteem.  According to Klorer (2000) “children gravitate toward forms of expression that will help them to communicate feelings safely” (p.242).  Art Therapy Connections nurtured creative community expression (Sutherland, Waldman & Collins 2010).  Each directive was designed to teach useful emotional regulation and anger management as well as to promote self-care and community involvement, and respectful, supportive and positive relationships.

The creation of art can become a bridge that provides access to feelings universally shared (McNiff, 1984/2009).  Data collected by Art Therapy Connections reported the progress of 150 students who participated during the 2007-2008 academic year, analysis of the data by “Art Therapy Connections therapists found that approximately 80% of the students consistently attended school and that nearly 20% of those students not in school were ill, truant, suspended, expelled, or transferred out of the district” (Sutherland, Waldman & Collins 2010, p.73).  Data collected from the participating high school for the 2007 and 2008 academic years demonstrates graduation rates of 78% for students that participated in the year-long art therapy program whereas the graduation rate for the entire student body was 56%.  This indicates a 36% improvement in the graduation rate for students that participated in the Art Therapy Connections program.  Sutherland, Waldman & Collins (2010) affirmed the client’s ability to change and emphasized the important alliance with a competent, caring adult as a predictor of a positive outcome.

For general information about Art Therapy please refer to the link below: