Art psychotherapy: supporting creativity and psychological wellbeing

Life is rarely without the occasional curve ball and sometimes they are profound! The shocking statistic that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some time in our lives is pretty confronting and we are often reminded of the need to check in with various parts of our bodies on a regular basis. If and when the dreaded day arrives and we are facing the physical and emotional fallout of such terrible news, there are things we can do to tread that path in a more positive way.

Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon

Art psychotherapy uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing. It is not a recreational activity or an art lesson, although the sessions can be enjoyable, and participants do not need to have any previous experience or expertise in art.
Image credit: Chloe Sparrow

Although influenced by psychoanalysis, art psychotherapists have been inspired by theories such as attachment-based psychotherapy and have developed a broad range of client-centred approaches such as psycho-educational and mindfulness-based treatments, compassion-focused and cognitive analytic therapies, and socially engaged practice. Art psychotherapy, it should be noted, is not just for cancer patients: it can be therapeutic for people suffering emotional difficulties as a result of any actual or perceived life trauma. We can't, as outsiders, judge what a person experiences as a traumatic event in their life. Trauma really is in the eye of the beholder!

Image credit: Elena Mozhvilo
Cancer Research UK sees therapy through art media as particularly beneficial for cancer patients. It is a way to communicate and helps with exploring confused or difficult thoughts and feelings. It can encourage positive feelings too. People enjoy the control and expressive qualities of making art. Sharing experiences with a trained art psychotherapist is supportive. It is also a way to connect with other people who are in similar situations.

Image credit: Joanna Kosinska
Art psychotherapy may be helpful for people who feel uncomfortable with touch or talk therapies. And it can be useful in supporting families and friends affected by cancer.

The scientific evidence for art as therapy is still limited. But many health professionals think it may:

  • encourage you to express your emotions
  • help improve your relationships with other people
  • help you adjust to a changing body image
  • encourage you to be creative and self-confident
  • help take your mind off pain or discomfort
  • help to control anxiety, depression and low self-esteem

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
There are a number of organisations in the UK providing art therapy as a support mechanism for cancer patients including Maggie's Cancer Care and Penny Brohn UK. Many independent art therapists are also providing this valuable service for a range of emotional difficulties.

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
We spoke to one independent art psychotherapist, Chloe Sparrow, who provides art therapy in her idyllic, treehouse studio in Essex where participants are encouraged to reflect on their art-making process, finding particular themes emerging through the colours, shapes and concepts in their artwork.

Art psychotherapist Chloe Sparrow. Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Could you tell us what prompted you to choose art psychotherapy as a career?

My interest in art psychotherapy initially grew from my experience of struggling to find the right words to convey a feeling. Oftentimes we can experience really big feelings but not have the vocabulary, or confidence, to describe what is going on in our lives. For me art psychotherapy offered a bridge between those big feelings and expression of those feelings. 

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
What inspires you most about being an art psychotherapist?

I am always amazed at how individuals come into therapy and find a unique way to tell their story using the art materials. The artwork can become a powerful tool for self discovery and in many ways it feels limitless, in terms of the diverse range of art objects and images that can be created. In one of my first roles as an art psychotherapist, while working in a Maggie’s Cancer Centre, it became very clear how the expressive art group used artmaking to process their big feelings and find new, more manageable, ways of speaking together about their terminal illness.  

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
What are some of the life experiences/traumas that are helped by art psychotherapy?

Anyone with a willingness to engage with the art materials can potentially benefit from art psychotherapy. It is suitable for all ages and applicable to all areas of therapy. Absolutely no prior experience or skill is necessary in order to attend art psychotherapy. What makes art psychotherapy quite unique is the tangible nature of the artwork that gets created. So you have not only the relationship between client and therapist but the artwork itself. This artwork can be referred to and explored in addition to the therapeutic relationship. Sometimes this is particularly helpful for individuals who have experienced trauma for example, as the artwork can be separated or reclaimed by the individual during a session, proving a safe means of exploring something that was painful or is triggering. 

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Do your clients often have an artistic background or are they more often completely inexperienced? 

Many individuals who feel open to trying art psychotherapy may well have a pre-existing interest in art on some level, however it is by no means a requirement. Personally I see a mixture of clients, some with a background in art and others without. 

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Are your sessions prescriptive or do your clients tend to lead the way?

This really depends on the individual’s needs in therapy. If someone is particularly anxious for example,  a more structured session led by the therapist may feel easier for them to engage in. Usually however I try to tune into how the individual is feeling and reflect this in some way, so that it can be explored together. There is often space for the individual to use the art materials freely and the manner in which they do this may give an indication into how they are truly feeling. I will usually respond to what I see and work together with the client to explore new perspectives. 

Chalk drawing underneath the treehouse. Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
How important is it to be a member of the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT)?

This feels important on many levels, however it is not essential to be a member in order to practise art psychotherapy. Many art psychotherapists chose to become members because of the resources and guidelines BAAT provide, as well as the sense of community. What is actually essential to any practising art psychotherapist is that they are registered with the Health Care and Professions Council (HCPC). HCPC regulate health and care professions (such as Doctors, Nurses, Dentists etc.) by setting standards for the education and training of the given profession - in order to protect the public. By law, art psychotherapists must also be registered with them to work in the UK. If you want to check the register for an art psychotherapist you can use the HCPC website. 
Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Why were you inspired to create a treehouse studio?

I really wanted to create a tranquil environment for people to attend therapy. In my childhood, the humble treehouse was a familiar place for play as well as reflection. My hope was to recreate this type of environment in the Treehouse Art Studio. Once it was built, I had the idea to paint the walls in a leopard print design. I hoped that this would encourage others to connect with their nature and feel free to engage in the therapy.  

The treehouse studio. Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Why art psychotherapy as opposed to other forms of therapy such as CBT or talking therapies?

I believe there is place for many kinds of therapy; we are all individuals and what suits one of us may not be the right approach for another. It is important to find what works for you and often we have an intuitive sense of what form of therapy that may be. Also, at different times in our life we may be better suited to one approach or another. During my training in art psychotherapy for example, I attended verbal psychotherapy sessions that would have been very difficult for me to engage with at an earlier stage in my life. 

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
Do you have time to create artwork for yourself? 

Oh yes and it feels really important for me to do so. Sometimes I create artwork in response to my work as an art psychotherapist, other times I work on personal projects such as portraits of family and friends. I love painting and since using the Treehouse Art Studio I've been able to develop my practice and understanding of colour. It is very inspiring to be surrounded by the trees, especially observing the change in seasons so closely.

Image credit: Chloe Sparrow
When you are experiencing serious illness, like cancer, or another traumatic life event such as bereavement, it can feel as if you have no way to express the emotions you are experiencing. Some people respond to talking therapies either individually or in a group setting; others might find other outlets such as music or dance; many will simply carry on without a way to address their well of emotions. Think of it, if you will, as an actual well where the bucket and rope are missing. The water is clearly visible but you have no way to draw it.

Art psychotherapy is a way to tap into that well of emotions, draw them out and find new ways of expressing them in a safe space. No particular skill or talent is required, just pencil, paint brush or even a stick of chalk.

At Craft Courses, we are fully supportive of people's need to find ways of expressing emotion when they find themselves in difficult life situations. We are proud to host many makers offering courses with a focus on art as a therapeutic activity.

If you would like to find out more about art psychotherapy here are some useful links to help you:

Chloe Sparrow Art Psychotherapist
Maggies' cancer centres
Penny Brohn UK
Macmillan cancer support

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