The Benefits of Art Therapy for Mental Health Recovery

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Psychotherapy is deemed one of the first-line treatments for mental health. Yet, there are many people who feel daunted by the idea of merely discussing their thoughts and emotions with a therapist – especially those who do not know how to put their emotions into words. For those who feel this way, it can be beneficial to understand other types of therapy that are available for healing. Art therapy, for example, offers an opportunity for creative expression and self-discovery that can greatly complement the traditional psychotherapeutic process. At Pathways Recovery Center, art therapy is one of many modalities we provide for those seeking substance abuse, mental health, and addiction treatment. 

What Is Art Therapy?

Simply put, art therapy focuses on the use of art media as a source of expression and communication for clients participating in mental health treatment. During an art therapy session, an art therapist utilizes a plethora of materials and media to help clients better express, interpret, and resolve their thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. As an article by Cureus states, “Art therapy uses integrative techniques to captivate the soul, body and mind in ways that verbal expression alone doesn't appear to.”

The aforementioned article explains that art therapy is an all-encompassing term that includes the following treatment modalities:

  • Theatre therapy
  • Dance movement psychotherapy
  • Body psychotherapy
  • Music therapy
  • Drawing therapy
  • Painting therapy
  • Crafting therapy

The Main Functions of Art Therapy

Art therapy is used in a variety of treatment contexts for a multitude of reasons. According to an article by Frontiers in Psychology, The American Art Therapy Association highlights the main functions of art therapy:

  • Improving cognitive and sensorimotor functions
  • Fostering self-esteem and self-awareness
  • Cultivating emotional resilience
  • Promoting insight
  • Enhancing social skills
  • Reducing and resolving conflicts and distress
  • Promoting societal and ecological changes 

The same article explains that different forms of art therapy are mainly used to treat clients with conditions that inhibit their ability to express themselves in words. Some examples of conditions like this include depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, personality disorders, cognitive impairments, autism, and chronic physical conditions like cancer. 

The Value of Creative Expression in Recovery

To recognize the benefits of art therapy for mental health recovery, it is first important to understand the value of creative expression for wellness. As an article in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health explains, “Both creativity and well-being are essential to humankind.” The article aimed to address the relationship between creativity and well-being, finding that there not only exists a positive relationship between the two but also that creativity is beneficial to subjective well-being. 

Creative expression is important because it fosters an opportunity for individuals to express their emotions in a safe and healthy way. When a person is unable to or fails to express their emotions, it can dysregulate their body's nervous system and bring about intense surges of stress. Over time, such stress can become chronic, which is associated with a long list of potential health consequences. 

Moreover, those who can't put their thoughts and emotions into words may feel as if they are broken or stuck, which can trigger a downward mental health spiral. Fortunately, with the opportunity to participate in art therapy and other forms of creative expression, these individuals have the means that they need to secure lasting wellness in their lives. 

Art Therapy for Addiction Recovery

There is no question that substance abuse and addiction can certainly interfere with an individual's ability to express their emotions healthily. In active addiction, a person engages in recurrent alcohol and drug use as means of temporarily treating or resolving distressing emotions. This phenomenon is known as self-medicating and poses immense challenges for treatment and recovery. Thus, when a person with addiction enters treatment, it may be the first time in their life that they are given safe opportunities for self-expression without substances playing a factor in their healing. 

In addition to the main functions of art therapy mentioned earlier, an article by the Journal of Addictions Nursing highlights the following benefits of art therapy for those in treatment for addiction and substance use disorder (SUD):

  • Decreasing denial
  • Reducing opposition to treatment
  • Providing an outlet for communication
  • Lessening shame
  • Improving engagement in group discussions
  • Increasing motivation for behavioral change

Fostering Creative Expression Outside of Treatment

Clients in treatment for mental health disorders and SUD know that healing does not stop once a therapy session ends. In other words, healing is an ongoing process that requires clients to incorporate various skills and coping strategies into their daily lives outside of a treatment program. Therefore, it is important for clients to recognize the value of participating in expressive outlets both in treatment as well as at home. 

In addition to typical outlets of art therapy mentioned earlier, some ways that individuals can partake in creative expression at home include:

  • Creating or playing music
  • Singing
  • Blogging
  • Sculpting
  • Pottery
  • Doodling
  • Photography
  • Storybook illustration
  • Blackout poetry
  • Attending a new hobby class

At Pathways Recovery Center, we are passionate about helping our clients discover exciting means of self-expression, both in and outside of treatment. 

If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health and feel overwhelmed by the idea of talking through your thoughts and emotions with a therapist, consider participating in art therapy to complement traditional psychotherapy sessions. Art therapy uses various outlets for creative expression to help you better process, interpret, express, and resolve your emotions and life experiences. This modality has shown promise for treating a wide range of mental health disorders as well as substance abuse and addiction. At Pathways Recovery Center, we are passionate about incorporating means of self-expression into our client care. To learn more about our treatment programs, give us a call today at (888) 771-0966.

Clinically reviewed by 

Moses Nasser
Dr. Moses Nasser, a double board-certified physician in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine, with expertise in holistic healing, addiction medicine, and psychiatric care, holds an X-waiver to prescribe buprenorphine and has extensive experience in mindfulness-based customer service and medication-assisted treatment.

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