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Art Therapy

Other common name(s): creative arts therapy, expressive arts therapy

Scientific/medical name(s): none


Art therapy is used to help people manage physical and emotional problems by using creative activities to express emotions. It provides a way for people to come to terms with emotional conflicts, increase self-awareness, and express unspoken and often unconscious concerns about their illness and their lives. “Expressive arts therapy” or “creative arts therapy” may also include the use of dance and movement, drama, poetry, and photo therapy, as well as more traditional art methods.


Many clinicians have observed and documented significant benefits among people who have used art therapy. Art therapy has not been studied scientifically to find out if it has value for people with cancer.

How is it promoted for use?

Art therapy is based on the idea that the creative act can be healing. According to practitioners, called art therapists, it helps people express hidden emotions; reduces stress, fear, and anxiety; and provides a sense of freedom. Many art therapists also believe the act of creation influences brain wave patterns and the chemicals released by the brain.

Art therapy has been used with bone marrow transplant patients, people with eating disorders, emotionally impaired young people, disabled people, the chronically ill, chemically addicted individuals, sexually abused adolescents, caregivers of cancer patients, and others. Art therapy may also be used to engage and distract patients whose illnesses or treatments cause pain.

Artwork may also be used as a diagnostic tool, particularly with children, who often have trouble talking about painful events or emotions. Art therapists say that often children can express difficult emotions or relay information about traumatic times in their lives more easily through drawings than through conventional therapy.

What does it involve?

People involved in art therapy are given the tools they need to produce paintings, drawings, sculptures, and many other types of artwork. Art therapists work with patients individually or in groups. The job of the art therapist is to help patients express themselves through their creations and to talk to patients about their emotions and concerns as they relate to their art. For example, an art therapist may encourage a person with cancer to create an image of themselves with cancer, and in this way express feelings about the disease that may be hard to talk about or may be unconscious.

In another form of art therapy, patients look at pieces of art, often in photographs, and then talk with a therapist about what they have seen. A caregiver or family member can also gather artwork in the form of photographs, books or prints, and give the patient a chance to look at and enjoy the art.

Many medical centers and hospitals include art therapy as part of inpatient care. It can be practiced in many other settings, such as schools, psychiatric centers, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, prisons, day care treatment programs, nursing homes, hospices, patients' homes, and art studios.

What is the history behind it?

The connection between art and mental health was first recognized in the late 1800s. In 1922, a book titled Artistry of the Mentally Ill aroused interest in the subject and caused the medical community to examine the diagnostic value of patients’ creations. Some practitioners realized that art might be valuable for rehabilitating patients with mental illness.

In the 1940s, ideas from psychoanalysis and art were combined to develop art as a tool to help patients release unconscious thoughts. Patients’ creations began to be considered as a type of symbolic speech. In 1958, at the National Institute of Mental Health, an artist named Hana Kwiatkowska translated her knowledge as an artist into the field of family work and introduced methods of evaluation and treatment techniques using art therapy.

In 1969, the American Art Therapy Association was established. The organization now has more than 4,500 members and, along with the Art Therapy Credentials Board, sets standards for art therapists and educates the public about the field. Registered art therapists must have graduate degree training and a background in studio arts and therapy techniques. More recently, several groups specializing in various kinds of art therapy, and expressive art therapies in general, have been established.

What is the evidence?

Numerous case studies have reported that art therapy benefits patients with both emotional and physical illnesses. Case studies have involved many areas, including burn recovery in adolescents and young children, eating disorders, emotional impairment in young children, reading performance, childhood grief, and sexual abuse in adolescents. Studies of adults using art therapy have included adults or families in bereavement, patients and family members dealing with addictions, and patients who have undergone bone marrow transplants, among others. Some of the potential uses of art therapy to be researched include reducing anxiety levels, improving recovery times, decreasing hospital stays, improving communication and social function, and pain control.

Are there any possible problems or complications?

Art therapy is considered safe when conducted by a skilled therapist. It may be useful as a complementary therapy to help people with cancer deal with their emotions. Although uncomfortable feelings may be stirred up at times, this is considered part of the healing process.

Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

Additional resources

More information from your American Cancer Society

The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our Web site (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).

Dietary Supplements: What Is Safe?

The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management

Complementary and Alternative Methods and Cancer

Placebo Effect

Learning About New Ways to Treat Cancer

Learning About New Ways to Prevent Cancer


Expressive arts therapy. Arts in Therapy Network Web site. Accessed at http://www.artsintherapy.com/whatis.asp?id=269 on May 30, 2008.

Kirk K, McManus M. Containing families' grief: therapeutic group work in a hospice setting. Int J Palliat Nurs. 2002;8:470-480.

The National Expressive Therapy Association Web site. Accessed at http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/museum/5408/index.html on May 30, 2008.

National Institutes of Health. Alternative Medicine: Expanding Medical Horizons: A Report to the National Institutes of Health on Alternative Medical Systems and Practices in the United States. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1994. NIH publication 94-066.

Noice H, Noice T, Staines G. A short-term intervention to enhance cognitive and affective functioning in older adults. J Aging Health. 2004;16:562-585.

Walsh SM, Martin SC, Schmidt LA. Testing the efficacy of a creative-arts intervention with family caregivers of patients with cancer. J Nurs Scholarsh. 2004;36:214-219.

Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.

Last Medical Review: 11/01/2008
Last Revised: 11/01/2008