How To Become an Art Therapist in 7 Steps (With Salary)
Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy where patients express themselves through visual media like drawing, sculpture or painting. Art therapists assess and treat patients of all ages who have various mental health or cognitive conditions. If you're interested in helping others improve their mental health and undergo rehabilitation through visual self-expression, it might be beneficial to learn more about art therapy and find out how you can pursue it as a career.
In this article, we explain what art therapists do and what steps you can take to become one, with frequently asked questions about this career path.
What does an art therapist do?
An art therapist is a mental health specialist who uses expressive therapy to help patients understand their emotions and manage trauma. Art therapists combine psychology with the creative process of art to model healing and counseling processes. This helps patients manage stress and improve their interpersonal skills and communication abilities. They use different art forms, such as studio art, to encourage creative expression and address a variety of mental health conditions. Art therapists work in mental health clinics, hospitals and private practices. Their patients can be of any age, and they spend their time treating psychological conditions and encouraging artistic expression. Their specific job duties may include:
Creating and guiding art therapy sessions to aid in a patient's treatment
Using sculpture, painting, drawing and mixed media in different therapeutic techniques
Meeting with patients to learn about their needs
Observing and interpreting patient behavior through their art
Writing progress reports and case summaries
Consulting with medical experts to help set goals for patients
How to become an art therapist
If you want to pursue art therapy, it's beneficial to have a background in art and possess expertise in psychology. Here are seven steps you can follow to become an art therapist:
1. Pursue a bachelor's degree
You prepare to become an art therapist by earning a bachelor's degree in the behavioral sciences or in art. Courses that help students develop visual art skills or skills related to sculpting, painting and drawing are useful for an art therapist because they regularly use these techniques to help their patients express themselves. During your bachelor's program, you can also take courses in cognitive, developmental or physiological psychology to increase your understanding of mental health issues and treatment options. Consider majoring in one of the following areas to prepare yourself for the career if art therapy isn't already available:
2. Obtain a master's degree
A master's degree includes advanced courses and fieldwork that help prepare students for their art therapy certification. This degree typically takes two to three years to complete and allows you to qualify for specific roles and increase your expertise in the field. While earning a master's degree in art therapy, students usually receive training in the following areas:
Art therapy assessment
3. Complete a clinical internship and gain experience
The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) requires students to complete 100 hours of supervised practicum and 600 hours of supervised experience in a clinical art therapy internship as a pre-requisite to becoming a certified art therapist. During their art therapy internship, students can assess and treat patients and learn more about the field. A clinical internship also includes instruction from a registered art therapist, who guides students through the different scenarios they may encounter.
An internship can help you learn about the practical application of art and develop the psychology skills necessary for working with and treating patients. The AATA also requires prospective therapists to complete preparatory training in studio art methods. During this training, you can learn more about mediums like digital art, clay molding, painting and sculpting. Additional training can help you further develop your skills and prepare for your career.
Related: A Guide to Psychology Internships
4. Build a portfolio
An art therapy portfolio includes art that a prospective therapist creates, with case studies from their internship. A portfolio can be an excellent way to demonstrate your art skills and show potential employers that you understand the creative process and can interpret others' art successfully. It can be useful to begin a portfolio when you start completing art courses and add to it throughout your career. Consider adding projects from each course you take or internship you complete so your portfolio includes a large body of work.
5. Earn your credentials and gain licensure
Before practicing as an art therapist, you typically need certification from the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Completing a master's degree and an art therapy internship qualifies you for certification. The Art Therapy Credentials Board then evaluates your education and ensures that you have the proper training to practice as an art therapist.
You earn your certification to practice by completing a national examination that evaluates your knowledge of the theories and clinical skills required for art therapy. The length of time your license is valid may vary depending on the state you're in, so be sure to review your state's specific requirements for renewal. Once you have your primary certification, you can further specialize in a specific type of art therapy by earning additional certifications.
6. Apply for art therapy positions
Once you have the relevant credentials, you can begin practicing as an art therapist. It may be beneficial to work in an entry-level role before you meet with patients, such as an art therapy assistant or studio art assistant. To apply for art therapist positions, search job boards and medical facilities that may be hiring in your area. You can improve your application by engaging in the following:
Writing a resume that showcases your skills and experience
Submitting your portfolio to show your understanding of art techniques
Addressing your education and credentials to provide proof of your qualifications
Adding work experience from clinical internships and art-related jobs to your resume and application materials
7. Join professional associations
Membership in a professional association can help you network with experienced therapists and learn more about art therapy techniques and advances in the field. It can also help you differentiate yourself from other candidates when applying for jobs by showing your dedication to the field. You can search for relevant associations through the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations, which represents five creative arts therapy organizations that have an accumulated total of 15,000 members.
Related: What Is a Professional Organization?
Skills for art therapists
Here are the primary skills for art therapists:
Knowledge of psychotherapy
Psychotherapy helps people address and understand their feelings through cognitive and behavioral therapy methods. Art therapists use their knowledge of psychotherapy methods to help patients express their emotions through creativity. Skills and knowledge relating to psychotherapy also help them interpret patients' art.
Possessing art knowledge and artistic ability is important for art therapists to guide art therapy sessions. Their own artistic skills allow them to motivate and inspire patients to employ their creative abilities.
Interpersonal skills include the ability to show compassion and empathy. They also involve collaborating with others and being self-aware. These skills allow art therapists to establish productive relationships with their patients and help them gain their trust. Good interpersonal skills help therapists assess their patients' mental health and better motivate and collaborate with their patients and peers.
Strategy is the ability to develop plans that guide specific actions. Art therapists use this skill to design comprehensive treatment plans for their patients. Good strategic skills can help them predict and prepare for patient progress and conduct individual art therapy sessions. Therapists with strategic skills and problem-solving abilities can help patients develop life skills and achieve progress more quickly.
Strong oral communication skills help art therapists instruct their patients and guide them throughout each therapy session. These skills can also help them communicate care plans and exercises to patients with cognitive differences. Art therapists may also benefit from written communication skills, which can allow them to take more effective notes on patient interactions and construct more detailed treatment plans.
Art therapists work with a wide range of patients on a regular basis, and each might have a different mental health issue and unique needs. Empathy allows them to treat each patient compassionately and understand their concerns. The ability to empathize with their patients can help them provide more effective treatment and personalized care.
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take to become an art therapist?
The time required to work as an art therapist varies. It typically takes six or seven years of education and another few years of training to become an art therapist and begin treating patients. Completing a bachelor's degree usually takes four years, while a master's degree may take at least two.
How much do art therapists make and what's their job outlook?
According to salary data from Glassdoor Salaries, art therapists earn $67,299 per year. Their salary might also vary depending on their specific specialty or the type of facility where they work. Note that figures from Glassdoor and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) help supplement information from Indeed.
While the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't have information specifically for art therapists, it does expect the job outlook for recreational therapists, which is a closely related role, to increase by 4% through 2031. There's likely to be a continued need for therapists as the population ages and requires more care. These therapists are also necessary to lead different programs and help people maintain overall wellness.
What's the work environment of an art therapist like?
Art therapists work closely with people who have cognitive disabilities or who want to overcome mental health challenges. They often work on medical teams at hospitals, clinics, shelters, rehabilitation centers and elder care facilities. Their job involves frequent collaboration with medical aids, physicians and other therapists. The hours they work may depend on their facility or the needs of their patients, but they generally work 40 hours a week.
What's the difference between an art therapist and a regular therapist?
An art therapist differs from a traditional therapist in that they receive specific training on how to engage patients throughout the creative process and integrate artistic principles into patient care. They're more likely to emphasize creative expression and use it to help patients regulate their emotions, challenge their beliefs and improve their coping skills. They also understand how to create art themselves.
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