So you want to be … an art therapist

Art therapy can be hugely effective in treating both children and adults. Here we talk to two art therapists, Sarah Harrison-Greaves and Nigel Durkan, about the challenges and rewards it offers as a career and how it impacts their own creative work

We have a tendency of thinking of most therapy in terms of the ‘talking cure’: the model first described by Freud of a person sharing their thoughts, feelings and experiences verbally with a therapist who then provides analysis in return. But there is increasing recognition that these techniques are not suited to everyone, and in fact non-verbal communication can be an equally powerful way to explore difficult experiences.

“Talking therapy is so direct – you’re having to make eye contact, it can feel very intense,” explains Sarah Harrison-Greaves, who is both a practicing artist and art therapist. “[In art therapy] people can make characters or images and not necessarily own it and say it’s about them. But the therapist can talk about the work, about the use of colour or the character, and how it might develop [in a way] that isn’t as potentially exposing as talking directly.”

Art therapy has been practised in the UK as a profession since the mid-20th century. It is described by the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT), which was founded in 1964, as “a form of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication. Within this context, art is not used as diagnostic tool but as a medium to address emotional issues which may be confusing and distressing.” BAAT offers advice and support for art therapists and also runs courses (Harrison-Greaves is a coordinator and lecturer on the BAAT Manchester Foundation Course).

It can be an appealing career path for artists but requires considerable education. While clients or patients do not have be artistically inclined at all to benefit from the technique, those training to be an art therapist are usually required to have a BA in some form of artistic practice, or have completed a portfolio of work. They will then need to complete a Masters in art therapy: unlike some forms of counselling, art therapy is state regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and HCPC registration is a statutory requirement to practice as an art therapist in the UK.