How to Become an Art Therapist

Overview

Therapist observing the artwork of a patient

Art therapy involves using the arts - visual arts, poetry, music, dance, drama - to promote wellness, healing, rehabilitation, and recovery. The ancient Greeks recognized the importance of art in promoting human health, but modern science only recently has come to appreciate art as a healing modality. For example, some studies have shown that music activates a different part of the brain than speech. When people with Alzheimer’s disease participate in music therapy, their memories sometimes improve. The arts bring joy to many people. Art therapists can make a big difference in someone’s life by helping him or her express themselves through art.

Art therapists combine psychotherapeutic techniques with the healing potential of art to improve the lives of people suffering from many illnesses. The therapists work with people with medical illnesses like cancer, elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, children with autism, people with movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, and people with mental health conditions like schizophrenia. Art therapy has also been used in disaster relief settings and with people who have experienced severe emotional trauma.

Art therapists provide individual and group therapy. They perform arts-based assessments to evaluate their clients’ conditions, and design sessions based on their clients’ needs and capabilities. During art therapy sessions, therapists help clients identify and resolve interior processes and conflicts that cause suffering. They also help clients deal with the stress of their illnesses, and help improve their speech, cognitive, and social functioning. Art therapists also attend to their clients’ social work needs.

Work Environment

Art therapists work in many different settings, including hospitals, rehabilitation facilities, schools, day treatment centers, drug and alcohol programs, hospices, disaster relief centers, and senior centers. They work as part of a healthcare team, as consultants, individually in private practice, or as teachers and researchers in academic settings.

Work hours and schedules vary widely by setting. Art therapists can choose to work full or part time. Private practitioners have more control over their schedules, but may need to accommodate their clients’ schedules by providing weekend or evening hours. Therapists who work in institutional settings, such as inpatient psychiatry wards, may have schedules that are determined by the rules and regulations of the institution. Group sessions may need to take place on a predetermined schedule to accommodate other therapeutic and medical needs of their clients. Art therapists who decide to teach or do research have schedules that are influenced by the academic institution. They may need to provide lectures, supervision, or other types of training during the school year, though their summers may be less busy.

Requirements

Education

Becoming an art therapist requires a Master’s Degree in Art Therapy, or in counseling with an emphasis in art therapy, from an accredited institution. Graduate schools require a bachelor’s degree from an accredited four-year institution. Some master’s programs also require completion of a certain number of hours of studio art and psychology courses. It is a good idea to major in a related field, such as psychology or art. Some schools offer Bachelor’s Degrees in Art Therapy, while others provide a minor in arts therapy. The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is also required. 

Training

Depending on the type of art therapy, additional skills may be necessary. For example, some programs in dance movement therapy prefer applicants who have trained in several styles of dance. Additional coursework in social work or family counseling may also be advisable.

Licensing and/or Certification

To become a registered art therapist, candidates must complete a master’s degree as well as the requisite number of post-graduate training hours. Board certified necessitates additional post-graduate clinical training under the supervision of a licensed clinician. After completing these requirements, art therapists are eligible to take the Art Therapy Credentialing Board (ATCB) certification exam.

Necessary Skills and Qualities

Art therapists need to be able to evaluate their clients objectively in order to tailor treatments to their needs. Having patience, empathy, compassion, and the ability to listen attentively are all important qualities for an art therapist. It's also important to possess good communication and interpersonal skills, since art therapists may need to coordinate care with others involved in the care of their clients. An ability to communicate their joy and enthusiasm for the arts, and to inspire this joy in others is also a valuable quality. As in all caring professions, there is a risk of developing compassion fatigue or burnout. Being able to self-reflect and give oneself a break when needed can help art therapists continue to provide excellent care. 

Opportunities for Advancement

After gaining experience by working in the field, art therapists could choose to pursue managerial positions, supervising other therapists or heading institutional art therapy programs. Earning a PhD increases the number and types of available grants for which art therapists can apply for research funding, and allows art therapists to teach at the university level.

If you would like to gain the necessary education to become an art therapist, we highly recommend that you check out our free School Finder Tool located HERE.

Salary

Salary ranges by geographic location, work setting, and the number of hours that art therapists choose to work. According to the American Medical Association, in 2009 (the most recent data) the starting salary for an art therapist was $39,000, with an overall average range from $30,000-$50,000 and an upper range of $80,000-$149,000. Art therapists who work in private practice may earn a higher salary, depending on how many clients they choose to see and the hours they set for themselves.

Job Outlook

As in any caring profession, there is a great need for art therapists, though growth is unclear due to the relatively young nature of the field. Many settings, such as mental health clinics that deal with special needs children, acknowledge the benefits of arts therapy. Future demand may be particularly high in the mental health field. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a 37% job growth rate from 2010-2020 for mental health counselors. The job growth rate may be similar for art therapists working in the mental health field. Pursuing board certification, licensure, or a PhD may increase potential job prospects.

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