Art therapy is quickly gaining support from the mainstream medical community. Didi Onwu discovers how this important treatment is being used by therapists and charities in the UK.

If you’ve ever put pencil to paper, or spent time picking clay from beneath your fingernails, you’ll know that creating art can be a remarkable outlet, a way to communicate without words. It becomes therapeutic.

Art therapy is not a new concept, in fact, it’s been around for centuries. Defined by the British Association of Art Therapists as, ‘psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication,’ art therapy utilises a range of different mediums to address, and explore solutions to, physiological and physical symptoms.

A two-part process, involving both the creation of art and the discovery of its meaning, this unconventional therapy can be used as a counselling tool by therapists, facilitate healing, accompany other treatments and aid rehabilitation.

Although a long paddle from the mainstream, in recent years, art therapy has had a bit of a renaissance, and is now at the forefront of treatments for a range of mental health issues.

Annabel Shilliday is a freelance art therapist and her experience working with secondary school students, ‘Art therapy creates a narrative and a documentation for people to see their journey,’ she says. ‘Patients can look back at their creations and physically see how they’ve grown or changed, the end result is so important, and that’s where it differs from other therapies.’

Heavily influenced by psychoanalysis, art therapists practice attachment-based psychotherapy, and have developed a series of mindfulness techniques and treatments based on behavioural change.

‘I’ve had patients that have tried other types of therapy and it hasn’t worked,’ continues Annabel. ‘Art therapy heavily relies on that initial connection between patient and therapist.

‘Sometimes, you have to be the observer while people create what they need to, but sometimes you also have to create alongside them and that in itself is a bonding moment.’

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When words fail, art speaks

There is no correct way to create art, ‘Zero skills are needed in order for this type of therapy to work,’ says Annabel. ‘It’s all about self-exploration and self-determination.’

Historically, sceptics have denied a relationship between the sciences and art therapy. But neuroscience, the study of the brain and its functions, and its deep connection to this form of treatment cannot be ignored. It has been proven that images can influence emotional states, thoughts, a sense of well-being.

The celebrated art therapist and writer Frances Kaplan wrote extensively about this unique relationship between science and art therapy. In her book Art, Science and Art Therapy: Repainting the Picture, Kaplan argues that science is at the centre of how art therapy works.

Kaplan ultimately believes that science is at the forefront in understanding and developing why and how art therapy is such a powerful therapeutic method.

The future of art therapy is boundless. New studies are praising the ability of art to reactivate memories in patients suffering from trauma. Art may help to bridge the gap between the implicit and explicit memory of a stressful event by facilitating the exploration of memories and why they are so upsetting.

The impact of neuroscience on all aspects of health care is repainting the picture of how art therapy is used in the treatment of emotional and physical disorders.

Moving forward

‘Art is changing the way discussions happen around mental health.’ says Annabel. ‘People are becoming more perceptive to the benefits of art and that is overshadowing stigma.’

‘As therapists, we’re not miracle workers, we aim to make people’s lives better. Whether it’s a boost in their confidence or self-esteem, there is nothing better than seeing a client having their light bulb moment and realising the impact art has had on them.’

Across the UK, there are many charities that are at the forefront of promoting the benefits of art therapy. Corearts is one such charity. Started over 20 years ago to help improve the lives of people suffering serious mental health problems, the organisation has grown dramatically.

Over the years, it has developed social enterprise schemes that provide creative learning to patients with mental health problems to help them get more involved with their communities.

By using art and creativity Corearts is helping breakdown the barriers and prejudices that surround those suffering with mental health problems.

Arts Sisterhood offer free art therapy sessions to all, but focus on women in an effort to challenge patriarchy and break the stigma of mental health.

The world of art is full of remarkable tales of intuition, ideas and personal journeys, and with the wide medical community far more susceptible to its possibilities, art as therapy could answer a lot of yet unanswered questions.

Illustration: Sam Knock


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Do more

Learn more about art therapy here.