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Who Can Benefit From Art Therapy?

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Do you remember growing up as a child and creating beautiful (your mum said it, so it’s true!) masterpieces out of crayons, macaroni, paint, and string art? Do you remember spending countless rainy days colouring in your favourite colouring book? My guess is that most of you answered ‘yes’ to these questions. The reason for that is because art is a universal language among children. It’s just something that comes naturally.

The problem is that as we get older and become self-conscious, we also become conscious and critical of things we produce, such as artwork, writing, music, etc. And the sad part is that because we do many of these things as a part of school curriculum they are judged, graded, and criticised. The focus becomes much more on the product than it does the process. The result of this is that most people give up these creative outlets around the time they hit middle school.  By the time they’re in high school, they’re long gone.

Fast forward to adulthood: work, relationships, finances, juggling family responsibilities among countless other stresses come along and most people don’t have those creative outlets to help deal anymore. When these stresses begin to pile up on us there are typically two ways of responding (if one is lacking healthy coping skills).

I’m sure everyone already knows what I’m going to say, but humour me: First, people keep things inside and let them build up and fester until they explode or, second, they overshare, complain about everything, let their negativity fly like the colours of the wind. Neither of these is healthy, and both of them can have negative effects on relationships and on your own well-being.

This is often when people seek out therapy. They’ve finally reached a point where their stress is too much for them to deal with alone, and it’s affecting their lives so much they need help. Now, some of my clients are drawn to art therapy because they may have an interest in art or want to try something new and creative. And oftentimes art therapy is appealing because it’s not your typical therapy session.

You don’t come into a sterile, formal room and lay down on a chaise lounge and talk about your feelings for an hour while the therapist listens intently, notepad in hand. Art therapy is hands-on. Your issues are messy. Problems are not pretty. With the guidance and support of your art therapist, you work through these issues. Sometimes the artwork is ugly or it may reflect things that make you uneasy. Oftentimes clients wish to throw their art away at the end of the session. And that is OK. Others people may come to an art therapist because they’ve tried everything else and nothing is working. This may be a last resort for some.

This brings me to the infamous question. Do I have to be an artist to participate in art therapy? Absolutely not. One of the most common things I hear is ‘Well, I can’t even draw a straight line.’ I always respond the same way: ‘Well great! I’m not going to ask you to draw a straight line.’ The goal of an art therapy session is not to make a pretty picture or create an arts and crafts project to give away to your great, great aunt Sally. The goal is to create something personal and meaningful to you, something that will help you gain some insight into your life and come up with some solutions as we ‘process’ the artwork together.

An art therapy session will typically begin with you and your art therapist getting to know each other and building a relationship, a foundation. This foundation is important in order for you to feel comfortable with your therapist and for change to happen, think of it like a seed that is just planted and the building of the relationship is your weekly watering. Again, the great thing and often the allure of art therapy is that sometimes it can be fun because you’re being creative while working on your problems. You’re expressing yourself. You’re learning new ways to deal with stress. You’re growing. Sometimes it will be hard. Sometimes it will make you uncomfortable. Sometimes you may be faced with self-realisations that may be hard to deal with. But, hey, the art, along with the art therapist’s support and guidance, is a safe place to face those things head-on.

So, to answer the question posed at the beginning of this entry:  Anyone can benefit from art. I’ve worked with kids as small as four years old and senior adults in their 90s, and everyone in between. . The one thing that is vital is that you have enough of an open mind to be willing to get a little messy, deal with some messes, and have some fun while doing it. What have you got to lose?

I’ll end with an added bonus since this has become such a hot topic. Adult colouring books; are they good? Are they bad? Are they therapeutic? Are they therapy? My opinion (and it may differ from other art therapists’ opinions) is that adult colouring books are great – but they are not therapy. They are not art therapy. And they should never be marketed as such.

I think marketing them as ‘art therapy’ is dangerous because it creates this idea that they can replace seeing an actual trained, certified, and/or licensed professional for help. Can they be therapeutic? Absolutely. So can going for a walk, or treating yourself to a spa day, or reading for pleasure. These are called coping skills, not therapy. Big difference! So, if any of this speaks to you, do yourself a favour and make an appointment with an art therapist. And in the meantime, if colouring is your jam, then, by all means, pick up a colouring book and de-stress a little.

Justin Davis is a board-certified, registered art therapist, and has a passion for working with teens and young adults.

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