Many people ask me this question and it can be difficult to explain! A colleague explained it very well by saying "we are, first and foremost, therapists, and art is the way in which we communicate". Those of us who are creative, understand the therapeutic effects of that creativity. It may be working in your garden, cooking a delicious meal, playing music, dancing, writing, doodling, making art, and even, yes, working in a colouring book! All of these can make us feel better, feel like we have had a break away from the stresses and strains of everyday life. The therapeutic value of these is not in dispute.
Working with a professionally trained art therapist is different. Art therapists have either a master's level post-graduate diploma or a master's degree in art therapy. They may have a bachelor's degree in psychology, social science or fine arts and psychology. They have had professional training in psychotherapy and counselling techniques and understand, on an intimate level, how different art materials affect us on a neurobiological level.
There are many areas where art therapy works where other therapies have been unsuccessful. If you think of someone who has experienced a traumatic and life changing event, they may not be able to verbalize what they have been through. The art then works as a vessel through which they can communicate what they have experienced and how they feel. In externalizing this inner turmoil, people can explore their grief and work towards healing. Interpretation of the art is done by the client with the support of the art therapist within the client's own timeframe and comfort level. Interpretation may not even be part of the process, as immersing ourselves in experiencing the effects of various art materials can support us to gain catharsis and the ability to move forward. Ultimately, the art may be kept or let go in a respectful and healing manner.
Art therapists work in hospitals, prisons, schools, mental health organizations, in war torn countries. Art therapists work with refugees, first responders, veterans, people struggling with addictions, children, youth, people with dementia, cancer, depression, anxiety and many many more. The really cool part is that you do not have to be artistic to reap the benefits of working with an art therapist! It is essential to look for an art therapist who has the right qualifications and with whom you feel you have a connection.