How To Become an Art Therapist (With 7 Steps)

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published May 11, 2021

Art therapy is a type of psychotherapy where patients express themselves through visual media such as drawing, sculpture or painting. Art therapists use this form of psychotherapy to assess and treat patients of all ages and with varying mental health or cognitive issues. If you are interested in helping others achieve mental health and rehabilitation through forms of visual self-expression, the career of an art therapist may be for you. In this article, we explain what an art therapist does, discuss the steps to become one and provide answers to common questions about their salary, work environment and skills.

What is an art therapist?

An art therapist is a mental health professional who uses expressive therapy to help understand emotion and manage trauma. An art therapist combines psychology and the creative process of art to model healing and counseling processes. Art therapy can help manage stress, develop communication and interpersonal skills and resolve other mental health conditions.

Art therapists work in mental health clinics, hospitals and in private practices. Their patients can be of any age, and art therapists are able to treat various psychological conditions with methods of self expression and art therapy.

What does an art therapist do?

An art therapist helps patients restore mental and physical well-being through an expressive therapy that helps address emotions through drawing and creating. Other job duties include:

  • Guide art therapy sessions

  • Create sessions to aid in patient's therapeutic treatment

  • Access patients and design treatment plans for them

  • Observe and interpret patient behavior and art

  • Write progress reports and case summaries

  • Consult with medical experts to help set goals for patients

How to become an art therapist

If you want to pursue art therapy, it is important to have a background in art as well as expertise in psychology. Here are steps you can follow to become an art therapist:

1. Pursue a bachelor's degree

You can start their art therapist journey by earning a bachelor's degree in art education, psychology or counseling. Courses that train visual art skills, sculpting, painting and drawing are useful for an art therapist because these techniques help patients express themselves. During your bachelor's program, you can take courses in cognitive, developmental or physiological psychology to give you a broad understanding of mental health issues and treatment options.

2. Obtain a master's degree

A master's includes advanced courses and fieldwork that prepares students for obtaining an art therapy certification. While earning a master's degree for art therapy, students receive training in group therapy, psychological development, creative process, art therapy assessment and research methods.

3. Work in a clinical internship

The American Art Therapy Association requires 600 hours working a clinical internship in art therapy as a pre-requisite to becoming a certified art therapist. During their art therapy internship, an art therapist supervises students as they assess and treat actual patients. A clinical internship also involves instruction from a registered art therapist who guides students through scenarios they may encounter. Practical application of art and psychology skills prepares art therapy majors for working with their own patients in the future.

4. Build a portfolio

An art therapy portfolio includes art the student creates and case studies from their internship. A portfolio is an excellent way to demonstrate art skills and provides evidence to employers that the you understand the creative process and can interpret others' art successfully. It is a good idea to begin a portfolio when you start taking art courses so that your portfolio includes a large body of work.

Related: What Is a Work Portfolio? (Plus How to Build One)

5. Earn credentials

Before practicing as an art therapist, you 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 evaluates your education and approves that you have the proper training to practice as an art therapist.

6. Apply to open positions for art therapy

To apply to art therapist positions, search job boards and medical facilities that may be hiring. Writing a resume that reflects your skills and experience and submitting your portfolio to show your understanding and application of art techniques are crucial for this step. Include your education and credentials to provide proof of your qualifications. An art therapy resume can also include work experience from clinical internships and art-related jobs you may have.

Related: How To Create a Psychology Resume (With Example)

Frequently asked questions about becoming an art therapist

Here is additional information to provide a better understanding of having a career as an art therapist:

What is the salary of an art therapist?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates an average salary of $55,900 per year for all therapists. Art therapists have potential to earn more because it is a specific field with highly specialized training. Similar careers to help estimate a national average salary are:

  • Applied behavior analysis therapist: $47,684 per year

  • Recreational therapist: $49,959 per year

  • Therapist: $70,532 per year

  • Occupational therapist: $84,293 per year

  • Psychiatrist: $226,840 per year

Who do art therapists treat?

Art therapists may work with children, couples, families and any age of adult. Most commonly they treat the following conditions:

  • Addiction

  • Anxiety

  • Depression

  • Family issues

  • Neurological issues

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder

Art therapists also can use art therapy to help rehabilitate people with disabilities or people who are recovering from illness or injury, such as cancer or a brain injury.

What is the work environment of an art therapist?

Art therapists typically work full time, 30 to 40 hours a week, in clinics, hospitals, shelters, rehabilitation centers and elder care facilities. They may also work in private practice, in which case they can create their own schedule and choose how much to work. Art therapy is a profession that involves working closely with people struggling with their mental health or who have cognitive disabilities. Art therapists work with medical teams of a patient's physician, other therapists and medical aids.

Skills for art therapists

Here are the primary skills of an art therapist:

Interpersonal

Interpersonal skills are the ability to show compassion, empathy, collaborate with others and be self-aware. Interpersonal skills are important for building relationships. For art therapists, interpersonal skills help gain their patients' trust and assess their mental health. Using their interpersonal skills, therapists can motivate and collaborate with their patients and the medical professionals art therapists may work with.

Read more: Interpersonal Skills: Definitions and Examples

Knowledge of psychotherapy

Psychotherapy helps people address and understand their feelings through methods of cognitive and behavioral therapies. Art therapists use their knowledge of psychotherapy methods to help patients express their emotion through creativity. Skills and knowledge relating to psychotherapy also help interpret patient's art.

Artistic skills

Art therapists encourage patients to draw, paint and sculpt in order to express themselves and work through mental health conditions or to help rehabilitate a patient with cognitive disability. Possessing art knowledge and artistic ability is important for art therapists to guide art therapy sessions.

Related: How To Add Artist Skills to Your Resume

Communication

Strong written and oral communication skills are important for art therapists who speak with patients and need to record observations and patient progress. Having excellent communication skills also means that they listen to and understand others.

Strategy

Strategy is the ability to develop and plan. Art therapists use this skill to design treatment plans for their patients. Strategy can help predict and prepare for patient journeys and individual art therapy sessions. Therapists with strategic skills are often good problem-solvers and can use this to

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