Art therapy is used as a complementary therapy in integrative medicine programs as a means to attain both the psychological and physiological benefits of self-expression. It is based on the principle that creative self-expression is inherently healing and life-enhancing. Therapists need not rely solely on verbal communication, but may gain additional insight from art therapy techniques used by both adults and children.
Children are particularly responsive to art therapy. Drawing, painting, and constructing with an art therapist may help children communicate difficult issues, reconcile emotions, and reduce stress.
Through creating and discussing art with an art therapist, one can increase awareness of self, cope with symptoms, cope with stress or trauma, enhance cognitive abilities, and enjoy the pleasures of artistic creativity.
Self-expression is considered an essential process in psychotherapy with children, adolescents, and their families. Through the process of self-expression, art therapy is believed to help people organize their inner reactions to events in their lives. This enables them to understand and express their feelings more clearly. The organizing function served by art therapy enables people to find meaning in their experience. This in turn may aid them in defining goals and desired outcomes.
In medical illness, research has established that emotional expression has positive benefits for the immune, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. The psychological and physiological benefits attained through art therapy may contribute to improved quality of life and, theoretically, to the medical course of illness.
These uses have been tested in humans or animals. Safety and effectiveness have not always been proven. Some of these conditions are potentially serious, and should be evaluated by a qualified healthcare provider.
Aging (quality of life):
Art therapy may be an effective means of improving quality of life in the elderly. There is evidence that the non-directed use of visual art (pictures) as a means of encouraging communication among elderly nursing home residents may increase well-being, happiness, peacefulness, satisfaction, and calmness. It may also reduce blood pressure and improve medical health status with regard to reported dizziness, fatigue, pain, and the use of laxatives.
Art has been effectively used as an educational tool to foster the development of empathy and other caregiver qualities in nursing students.
Art therapy may be an effective intervention for hospitalized, suicidal adolescents. There is evidence that it can be used to aid in developing a sense of identity and optimism about the future. It may also aid in relaxation and willingness to communicate, and may result in shorter hospitalization.
Transitional stress (children):
Immigrant and refugee children who are integrated into a new community and school system are at risk of emotional and behavioral problems. Some evidence suggests that a creative expression program involving art therapy may help alleviate these problems, increase self-esteem, and improve social functioning.
Alzheimer's disease (AD):
Art therapy has been used in only a few studies with AD patients, with some suggestion of benefit in alleviating negative emotions and minimizing problematic behaviors. However, further studies are needed for definitive conclusions.
Bone marrow transplant:
There is some evidence suggesting that art therapy may help bone marrow transplant patients to strengthen positive feelings, alleviate distress, and clarify their existential/spiritual issues. It may be beneficial for patients who need to deal with emotional conflicts and feelings about life and death.
Limited evidence suggests that family caregivers of cancer patients may benefit from art therapy to help them cope with the stress of caregiving. Possible benefits include reduced stress, lowered anxiety, increased positive emotions, and increased positive communication with cancer patients and healthcare professionals. Art therapy may also reduce pain and other symptoms in cancer patients. More studies are needed to determine how best to use this form of intervention with this population.
Encopresis (fecal incontinence associated with psychiatric disorders): clay modeling therapy in children:
It is not clear if play with modeling clay is an effective therapeutic intervention in children with constipation and encopresis. In one study, play with modeling clay was associated with improvement in five of six children, but was limited by lack of a control group.
Art therapy combined with behavior therapy may help reduce the symptoms of mental distress and improve overall health in people experiencing grief reactions.
Identity/self efficacy (adolescents):
It is unclear whether art therapy is an effective intervention to help teenagers define themselves and their life goals or improve their sense of self-efficacy. More studies are needed to explore this use of art therapy.
Art therapy may benefit children hospitalized with leukemia during and after painful procedures. One study suggests the therapy improves cooperation with treatment. Children requested art therapy again when procedures were repeated, and parents reported that children were more manageable after art therapy.
Military service-related stress:
Limited evidence suggests that art therapy, in the context of group psychotherapy, may contribute to the reduction of symptoms of emotional distress in military personnel receiving mental health treatment.
Phonological disorders (children):
There is limited evidence suggesting that children with phonological disorders who receive art therapy might have improved phonological output and awareness skills, but more studies are needed to determine the meaning of these findings.
There is some evidence that art therapy combined with regular outpatient psychiatric treatment might enhance functioning of chronic psychiatric patients, at least in the short term. More studies are needed to establish this.
There is limited evidence suggesting that art therapy may aid in restoring communication in people suffering from schizophrenia, including in children. Some research suggests it may also help patients adhere to treatment more reliably. However, more studies are needed to determine the best use with this population.
Sickle cell disease (children):
There is preliminary evidence suggesting that children with sickle cell disease may have improved coping and reduced healthcare visits following art therapy. More studies are needed to verify this.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (children):
There is some evidence suggesting that art therapy may not benefit children with post-traumatic stress symptoms. More studies are needed to determine whether and how this approach may benefit children with PTSD.