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The healing power of art

When feelings are too painful or puzzling to express with words, drawing them in vivid colors or forming them with damp clay can bring them to life.

“For many people, it’s easier to use imagery than to express emotions verbally,” said Trish O¹Donnell, a board-certified Registered Art Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Denver. “Art therapy provides a safe , controllable means of expression that helps people discover who they are, how they’re feeling and what’s going on in their life. Art used with psychotherapy can help someone living with depression tap into how they’re feeling or someone with bipolar disorder learn to manage and regulate their emotions.”

What is art therapy?
Art Therapy is used to assess, diagnosis, and treat people of all ages and is seen in hospitals and clinics (psychiatric and medical), out-patient mental health agencies and day treatment facilities. It is used with individuals, groups and families. Art Therapy can be the primary mode of therapy, or used in coordination with other treatments.

“The creative process involved in the making of art is healing and life enhancing,” the American Art Therapy Association explains. Creating art can bring hope, purpose and identity to someone struggling with mental illness. Art therapy requires no artistic ability.

Is art therapy something new?
Art has been used for healing throughout history. In the early 20th century, psychiatrists began to take note of the artwork created by their patients. They recognized that the creative process of art-making enhanced their patient’s recovery, health, and wellness. By mid-century, hospitals, clinics, and rehabilitation centers began to include art therapy programs along with traditional therapies. Art therapy emerged as a distinct profession in the 1940s.

There are approximately 5000 Professional Art Therapists practicing in the United States, according to the Art Therapy Association of Colorado. O’Donnell has been an art therapist for more than 25 years.

How does art therapy work?
O’Donnell provides her clients with materials such as pastels and paper and usually begins by asking them to draw anything that comes to their mind. Next, to draw a tree. And then to draw how they’re feeling. “This initial process gives me a sense of how art can work for them,” she said. “A patient with bipolar may draw how her week has been, and we can talk about that.”

Someone may say “I can’t draw,” but O’Donnell assures them that’s not what’s important; that they don’t have to be an artist and they can’t make a mistake.

Individuals can use drawing, painting or clay to give physical form to emotions, dreams, memories and concerns that cannot be expressed with words. A patient may work silently or while having a conversation with their therapist. He might take the artwork home where it may provide further insight.

What are the qualifications of an art therapist?
Anyone can call themselves an art therapist, so it’s important to verify the therapist’s credentials. An accredited Art Therapist holds a Master’s or PhD degree, has completed an accredited art therapy program and has met stringent requirements.

Art Therapists are trained in Developmental and Psychological theory in group, individual and family therapy, along with theories of art, the use of various media, and the meaning and assessment of images. Students complete two years of supervised practice working directly with patients in individual, group, or family formats. The designation ATR is granted by the national Art Therapy Credentialing Board and re-certification is required every 5 years.

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