Art therapy is an interdisciplinary approach that integrates various psychotherapeutic techniques to engage the mind, body, and spirit and improve the overall well-being of an individual. It can be viewed as a tool used by therapists to help clients express, interpret, and resolve their thoughts and emotions. Art therapists work in many different settings, including community clinics, psychiatric hospitals, individual practices, rehabilitation centers, schools, and social service centers, wherever there is a demand. Art therapy is generally regarded as a stimulating career by therapists, as they feel rewarded for their clients’ progress in self-expression and mind-body balance. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage of art therapists (classified among therapists, all others) is $55,900 [1].   

This guide will give you an in-depth insight into the various facets of art therapy, the education required to venture into the field, the occupational outlook of the profession, and additional resources to help you grow your network. 

 Become an Art Therapist:
Salaries & Career Outlook

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What is an Art Therapist?

Art therapy is an individualized form of psychotherapy that uses facets of art media as a mode of communication and expression. Art therapists use art to analyze different emotional issues and conflicts distressing their clients. Sometimes clients find it challenging to put their complex problems into words and struggle with communication; in such cases, art therapists use art to help people build their confidence and self-awareness by providing a secure and non-judgmental environment. There is a range of clients whom art therapists can help, including those with behavioral and mental health issues, life-debilitating conditions, physical illness, neurological issues, and learning disabilities. Depending on the need, they work with individuals or groups and practice in various settings related to education, prisons, social services, clinics, and more. Art therapists may occasionally encounter challenging clients who become aggressive towards themselves or others, creating unsafe situations for the therapists and their other clients. However, such cases are rare, and therapists usually find it satisfying to lead clients toward their journey of achieving well-being and personal growth.  

Variations of Art Therapy

Art therapy falls under the broader domain of expressive therapies that use creative arts as a specific form of treatment. These therapies are designed and used on the assumption that clients can make progress and heal by expressing themselves creatively. The therapist taps into people’s imagination and helps them examine their feelings, thought processes, emotions, and bodily sensations. The creative expression one wants in their sessions would depend on the client and the therapist. Here are some of the varying titles or areas that an art therapist can focus on as a means of learning and growth: 

  1. Music Therapy – This therapy uses music extensively in music-making or interventions related to music to form a therapeutic relationship. Music is a holistic practice to address the clients’ cognitive, communication, motor, emotional, sensory, social, pain, behavioral, and spiritual needs. When used in psychotherapy sessions, it is seen that music helps patients to process difficult experiences, improve cognitive or motor functioning, and communicate effectively. The essential element of music therapy is to use music as a symbolic representation and expression of the individual’s inner world.  
  2. Dance and Movement Therapy  – Dance and movement therapy focus on an essential element: our mind, body, and spirit are intertwined and interrelated. The primary intervention tool in a session has components of the art of play. Its emphasis is on nonverbal communication and is seen to be beneficial to those who want to express their emotions through movements.  
  3. Drama Therapy – Drama therapy is an integration of drama and psychotherapy. It borrows from techniques used in theater to treat those with cognitive, health, mental, and developmental disabilities. Therapists use a unique approach of aesthetic distance, where clients are guided to use the art of play and pretend to gain insight into therapy about their life challenges and experiences.  
  4. Play Therapy – In play therapy, a systematic approach is taken when trained play therapists use theoretical models to help their clients prevent emotional difficulties, resolve psychosocial challenges and steer them toward optimal development and growth. Play therapy is aimed at helping patients with social interaction, trauma resolution, empathy, decreased aggression, emotional modulation, and social skill development.  
  5. Psychodrama – Psychodrama is a unique approach to psychotherapy that Jacob L. Moreno developed. The goal is to create a more action-based and effective form of psychotherapy. Eminent psychologists like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have modified the therapy through their inputs about the unconscious. There are three phases to this therapy, including warm-up, sharing, and action; along with the phases, various intervention methods are used by psychodrama therapists currently keeping the context of the client in mind.  
  6. Multimodal Therapy and Integrated Arts Approach – For some clients, using just one approach is not very beneficial. Therefore therapists use multimodal therapy to use components of different therapies, like art, music, movement, drama, etc., together in a session.  Usually, the therapist will integrate at least two expressive therapies to enhance emotional growth, foster awareness, and improve the client’s relationship with others. The unique interrelatedness of different art components makes this therapy unique and can be molded according to the client’s needs.  

How to Become an Art Therapist

To pursue the field of Art Therapy, one must know the essential requirements to become a practicing art therapist. While it is not necessary to have a background in art or psychology to venture into the field, it is beneficial for those who understand both of these fields.  

One can start their journey in art therapy by earning an undergraduate degree in either psychology, counseling, or art education. They can take developmental, physiological, or cognitive psychology courses that will train them in visual art skills, sculpting, drawing, and painting, which will help their clients express themselves better. A master’s program in art therapy prepares graduates to obtain a certification. While pursuing their master’s, one learns about group therapy, creative process, art therapy assessment, psychological development, research method, and more. You can also obtain a Ph.D. in art therapy to further your reach and scope.  

Apart from acquiring degrees from a regional or nationally accredited  school, one must have a certification to practice as an art therapist. In the U.S., art therapists can begin their entry-level credentialing through the Art Therapy Credentials Board (ATCB)[2]; to do so, one must have at least a master’s in art therapy degree. Both master’s and Ph.D. students can apply for certification. The credentials they can obtain include: provisional registered art therapists, registered art therapists, art therapy certified supervisor, and board-certified art therapist.  

The ATCB also provides certifications in collaboration with the American Art Therapy Association (AATA)[3]. AATA requires a graduate to do a clinical internship for 600 hours in art therapy before becoming a certified art therapist. This internship period involves assessing and treatment of real clients under the supervision of a registered art therapist. There is also art therapy licensure that some states provide, including Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi, Maryland, Oregon, Tennessee, Connecticut, New Mexico, Kentucky, the District of Columbia, and Virginia. AATA provides detailed information on credentialing and licensure[4]

What Does an Art Therapist Do?

The scope of art therapy is vast, and components of this field can be used in many settings. Many fields overlap with the domain of art therapy. Therefore, there are some other titles or roles that an individual can consider for the growth of their career or a switch in their occupation, namely: 

Title/Role Description 
Psychologist Psychologists are typically professionals who study mental states, cognitive, emotional, perceptual, and social behavior, and processes. They can diagnose clients and treat mental illnesses with the help of various therapeutic models. They lead an interactive conversation with their clients to understand the distress being caused to them.  
Occupational Therapist An occupational therapist would generally treat those who are ill, injured, or disabled using therapeutic tools to assist them in everyday events. They can help one recover, improve, develop, and maintain skills needed to function independently.  
Social and Community Service Manager Social and community service managers supervise and coordinate programs that can benefit the public’s well-being. They could work directly with an individual or with a targeted community, for example, children with epilepsy, communities where homeless people stay, and more.  
Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist An applied behavior analysis therapist uses a kind of therapy based on the psychology of behavior and learning. They apply their theoretical understanding of how behavior could work in practical situations. They mainly aim to increase positive or helpful behaviors and decrease behaviors harmful to a client’s learning.  
Therapist  Therapists are typically trained licensed professionals and provide many treatments for the rehabilitation of clients. They guide their clients to understand their thoughts, choices, feelings, and behaviors that would affect them and those around them.  
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder & Mental Health Counselors Substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors primarily assist and support those with behavior and addiction problems, like alcoholism, eating disorders, drug addiction, gambling, and so on. They counsel individuals and their families and engage in prevention programs.  
Social Workers Social workers are professionals who help protect vulnerable populations from harm and abuse and provide them with the support to live independently. They might work with the client, family, or communities around them. Their role is to find solutions to people’s problems, some of which could include finding a homeless individual housing or job, advocating for community outreach, and more.  

How Much Does an Art Therapist Make?

The average median annual salary for an art therapist is estimated to be $55,900[1]. Art therapists have the potential to make more money, as this job is typically a sought-out field, and one can work in various settings with a diverse range of clients. Therefore, it is one of the most progressing careers one can choose, and its rewards, whether monetary or the psychological satisfaction of feeling good when the client progresses, are said to be high. Here is a list of job titles and the average median annual salary one can expect: 

Title/Role Median Annual Salary 
Rehabilitation Counselors $38,560 
Applied Behavior Analysis Therapist $47,684 
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors $48,520 
Social Workers $50,390 
Occupational Therapist $84,293 
Recreational Therapists $47,940 
Therapist  $49,959 
Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers $48,860 
Psychologists $81,040 

What is the Job Outlook for Art Therapists?

Art therapists work in varied settings with many clients, including in community clinics, psychiatric hospitals, medical settings, practicing individually, and more. A survey conducted by the American Art Therapy Association projected a yearly salary for art therapists to range between $30,000 and $80,000 [3]. With no statistical data that specifically studies job growth for art therapists, it is difficult to say what the future holds. However, with an increasing need for mental health professionals, the demand for work is rising, ensuring that more jobs will be added in the upcoming years. Here is an overview of some of the roles and their job outlook:   

Title/Role Job Outlook 
Rehabilitation Counselors The projected growth rate of jobs as rehabilitation counselors is 11%, much faster than the average for other occupations[5]
Applied Behavior Analysis Therapists Although no specific or credible data is available for the job outlook for applied behavior analysis therapists, it would be safe to assume that the job growth rate could be in the region of other similar roles. 
Substance Abuse, Behavioral Disorder, and Mental Health Counselors The projected job outlook for these professionals is 22%, much faster than average for other jobs[6].  
Social Workers It is projected that social workers will have a job outlook of 9%, which is faster than the average for other jobs between 2021-31[7].   
Occupational Therapists 14%, much faster than average, is the job outlook for occupational therapists[8].   
Recreational Therapists Recreation therapists have a projected job outlook of 4%, as fast as the average for 2021-31[9].  
Therapists  The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has no specific data on Therapists overall but projects the statistics for individual occupations.  
Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers have a project job outlook of 12%, which is much faster than the average[10].  
Psychologists Psychologists can expect a job growth of 6%, which is as fast as the average for other occupations[11].  

FAQs on Art Therapy & Art Therapists

Frequently Asked Questions

Where can an art therapist work after completing their degree requirements? 

Art therapists can work with couples, families, groups, and individuals in various settings where they can help people with mental or physical illnesses. They can work in private practice, community clinics, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, schools, veteran’s clinics, senior communities, crisis centers, forensic institutions, and more. They can also collaborate with therapists from other fields, like occupational therapists, art therapists, etc.  

How does art therapy work? 

Who can practice art therapy? 

Are there accredited programs in art therapy? 

Additional Resources for Art Therapists

Additional resources are significant for individuals who want to pursue their professions in the field of art therapy, aiming to promote and communicate the recent developments in the field. Therefore, students pursuing psychology or related programs could join professional associations to get a first-hand experience of the field and further expand their knowledge on various expressive and creative methods to use art as a communication medium. Examples of such organizations that could help one in their professional and academic growth include: 

  1. Americans for the Arts -This association aims to provide a network and access to various educational opportunities and professional development to help one lead their community and organization. They provide many research opportunities demonstrating how the arts support the growth of the educational, economic, and social components of the societies around us.  
  2. National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Associations – This association aims to support those practicing art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, poetry therapy, and dance and movement therapy. They focus on using the creative processes from these different therapies to alleviate ailment and disability and enhance well-being and health. They partner with member associations like American Art Therapy Association and American Music Therapy Association.  
  3. American Art Therapy Association -This association aims to advance the field of art therapy as a regulated mental health occupation. They have built a community that supports art therapists throughout their careers and help them support everyone on the journey to well-being and mental health. They provide resources that make professional art therapy accessible by offering benefits like events, conferences, etc.
  4.  Art Feeds – Art Feeds is a nonprofit association for art education that aims to provide lessons and projects for the growth of arts to foster well-being. Art educators, counselors, instructors, and children’s organizations can benefit from membership in this organization. They can access services like depth lesson plans, training mechanisms, curriculum and projects, teaching videos, etc.
  5. Mental Health Liaison Group – This association is a national coalition representing family members, mental health and addiction providers, advocates, and stakeholders committed to building citizens’ access to addiction care and mental health. They work towards advancing early interventionrecovery and treatment services, federal policies supporting prevention, and support. 

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