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March is Youth Art Month: Eight Things You Didn’t Know About Art Therapy

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

At Evolve Treatment Centers, we provide art therapy at every one of our teen residential treatment centers and outpatient programs. In honor of Youth Art Month this March, here are eight things you may not have known about art therapy.

1. It reduces cortisol levels.

Research shows that a solid 45 minutes of engaging in art decreases cortisol, even when participants have no prior artistic experience. The effects are even more pronounced in teens and young adults. This makes art therapy a soothing, relaxing, and stress-relieving experience – when it’s done in a safe and supportive setting, of course.

2. It’s about the process.

Art therapy is about the process, not the product. If you ever find yourself in an art therapy group, refrain from complimenting any of the participants’ creative work. During a formal art therapy group, praise — and even neutral comments — can trigger a teen’s inner critic.

3. Art therapists receive specialized training.

Training in mental health counseling or art doesn’t automatically qualify an artist or counselor to facilitate an art therapy group. In fact, art therapy is led by anyone other than a licensed, specially trained art therapist can be unsafe. Participants might experience negative triggers and side effects. Art therapists have the knowledge, expertise, and training to watch out for certain issues that come up during or after a session, and respond appropriately.

4. Art therapy is the back door to the subconscious.

The left side of our brain controls logic and reason, while the right side controls emotion. Because art is a kinesthetic activity that usually requires both hands, art therapy becomes a bridge between the two brain hemispheres. This can help teens put words to their emotions or bring up things buried deep in their subconscious. That’s why art therapy is particularly beneficial for teens with a history of trauma.

5. It’s not just for trauma.

While qualified therapists can use art therapy to process PTSD and other issues like neglect or childhood sexual abuse, art therapy can also help teens with depressionanxiety, low self-esteem, trauma, and other mental health and behavioral issues.

6. Art therapists choose materials carefully.

Art therapists use different artistic mediums at different times. In the beginning, teens might start with pencils or collages, as these materials offer more precision and control. Later, an art therapist might introduce less contained materials, such as clay or finger paint. Before a session, an art therapist takes great care in selecting an assortment of art supplies depending on the clinical needs of their clients.

7. It’s rarely a standalone therapy.

Art therapy is most often used as a complement to traditional talk therapy like Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), or other evidence-based modalities. While some studies show art therapy can improve emotional awareness and reduce symptoms associated with many mental health issues, the evidence indicates the effects may not be significant enough to warrant using it as a standalone therapy.

8. It’s useful for treatment-resistant teens.

Teens are often reluctant to engage in talk therapy. Their emotions might be too overwhelming and deep to put into words. Because art is a right-brain activity – while speech is a left-brain activity – treatment-resistant teens may open up during the non-threatening, safe environment of art therapy – even when they cannot or will not speak about their issues.

Art Therapy at Evolve Treatment Centers

Most teen treatment centers offer art therapy as a complementary treatment to traditional talk therapies like dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). At Evolve’s adolescent mental health and addiction treatment centers, including our residential and partial hospitalization/intensive outpatient locations, staff often incorporate art therapy into the weekly schedule as experiential therapy. Most teens find it easy to express themselves through the creative medium of art. They also find the activity fun and relaxing – an important factor in enhancing overall wellbeing.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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