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Holistic Addiction Treatment: Art Therapy

For people struggling with psychological disorders, chronic illness, and addiction, there are a multitude of treatment options including medication, counseling, and psychoanalysis. However, these are not the only treatment options as there are a number of different practices that aid in treatment. One such practice is art therapy, also known as art assisted therapy, or AAT.

Art has been used as a form of communication and community since earliest man, and its use in therapy is long-lived and successful. When suffering from an addiction, art assisted therapy has many benefits. In order to understand these benefits it is important to know what art assisted therapy is, its history, the varieties of art used, and the types of art assisted therapy and who benefits from it. It is also important to know the benefits and drawbacks of AAT.

What is Art Therapy?

addiction therapy

Art therapy helps people express themselves and understand their feelings in the process of healing from addiction and its effects.

According to an article published in the National Library of Medicine, art assisted therapy, is an underused, yet highly effective process by which an addict uses visual art mediums to express their emotions, fears, insecurities and pain in a non-judgmental environment. The finished product is then evaluated by a licensed art therapist or psychoanalyst, along with the addict. The purpose of this analyzation is to explore the thoughts and feelings that the client associates with the artwork, open a dialogue between the therapist and addict, and find new ways of looking at their problems with addiction and withdrawal in order to come up with a solution. It is also used to improve motor control and coordination, and to foster creativity. This is particularly helpful for long term addicts, which need to overcome neurological damage and impaired coordination.

The History of Art Assisted Therapy

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art assisted therapy as we know it today, was first described by British painter Adrian Hill during World War II, and has had much success throughout the years. Hill was an official war artist for Britain during World War I, and later battled tuberculosis, where he discovered the therapeutic effects of art. He coined the phrase “art therapy” in a book describing his recovery from the lung disease, and is generally recognized as the creator of modern art assisted therapy.

Hill was the first person employed as an art therapist and he even became the president of the British Association of Art Therapists. In Hill’s time, art therapy gained popularity and main-stream acceptance when it was used to help treat “shell shock” in returning war veterans, which later came to be known as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, art has been used in psychoanalysis since the late 18th century, when it was primarily used for “moral treatments” of the mentally ill. The use of visual arts in psychotherapy was also popular with Freud and Jung. In more modern times art assisted therapy has been used to treat a variety of psychological and physical ailments such as:

  • Traumatic brain injury,
  • Dementia,
  • Alzheimer’s,
  • Cancer,
  • Childhood trauma,
  • Sexual, physical, and mental abuse,
  • Autism spectrum disorders,
  • Schizophrenia,
  • Addiction, and
  • Depression.

Art assisted therapy is even used in rehabilitation facilities to control addiction related anger, frustration, and anxiety. For almost every problem, there is a type of art assisted therapy that may help. Many of these problems are experienced as a result or cause of addiction to different substances. A variety of art practices are utilized by art therapists to help addicts treat, control, and recover.

Varieties of Art Used in Therapy

There are as many different approaches to art therapy, as there are different types of art. An art therapist will choose the medium and subject matter that is most appropriate for their addict’s issues and therapeutic goals. Some of the more popular mediums include:

  • Collage, which is used in cases where addicts are very intimidated by the thought of making art, or to help addicts bring order to a chaotic mind. This is particularly useful when an addict is not thinking clearly.
  • Sculpture, which is primarily used for groups, couple, or family counseling, allows therapists to sense interpersonal relationships from the comparative designs and sizes of the sculptures. Sculpture also gives nervous addicts something to do with their hands that does not require fine motor skills.
  • Painting with oil pastels, which is one of the most common mediums used, because it requires moving slowly, which calms addicts, and adds clarity to their thoughts. Painting is useful for addiction therapy because it helps to calm anxious addicts.
  • Drawing, which is most commonly used in a clinical setting where the addict may be a threat to themselves, or others, and simple, non-weapon tools can be used.
  • Scrapbooking, which can give an addict perspective on their addiction, its causes, and the outcomes they want.

This is, by no means, a complete list. Art therapists utilize everything from photography and pottery, to needlepoint and quilting. The form that art therapy takes depends on the addiction, the addicts preferences, and the addicts abilities. All of these mediums are used in a large number of different art assisted therapy practices.

Types of Art Therapy, and Who Benefits from Them

The different art assisted therapy practices can be divided into sub-categories, that help explain their specific purposes, and who they are most effective in treating. Below is a list of some of the most widely recognized sub-categories, and who benefits from them.

  • Developmental art therapy– This process involves a variety of mediums, and is intended to improve motor skills, coordination, creativity, and critical thinking. It benefits:
    • Developmentally challenged children,
    • Stroke victims,
    • Addicts who have tremors or motor skill issues,
    • Epileptics,
    • Traumatic injury victims, and
    • Alzheimer’s and dementia patients.
  • Comparative sculpture therapy– In this practice, the addict is asked to sculpt objects that represent people and/or events in their life, in order to discern the interaction between them, and create perspective for the addict. It benefits:
    • Sexual, physical, and mental abuse victims,
    • Post-traumatic stress disorder patients,
    • People suffering from depression or anxiety, and
    • Families and couples.
  • Person-tree-road (and/or -house) psychoanalysis– This is the single most commonly used form of art assisted therapy. It involves having the addict draw a person representing themselves, or someone of the opposite sex, a tree representing how they view life, a road representing their journey to this point in their lives, or a house representing where they want to be in life. There are many well documented methods of interpreting these drawings; the therapist uses them to ask specific questions about the picture, and getting the addict to tell a story related to the images, thus opening a dialogue between the therapist and addict. This process benefits:
    • Addicts who are trying to recover their life and come to terms with the course of their addiction,
    • Those suffering from psychological disorders such as schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, and major depressive disorders,
    • Children and adults with autism spectrum disorders,
    • People suffering from debilitating phobias, and
    • Persons with anger management issues.
  • Individual and group studio therapy– This practice is intended to develop creativity, a sense of accomplishment, and to help the addicts connect to their community and improve interpersonal relationships. Studio therapy is designed to benefit:
    • People with antisocial tendencies,
    • The mentally ill,
    • The developmentally disabled,
    • The elderly, and
    • People with self-esteem issues.
  • Clinical art assisted therapy– This is art assisted therapy in a clinical environment, such as a mental hospital or prison. It involves striking a balance between a healthy, non-judgmental outlet for the addicts, and the structure necessary in clinical environments. This process uses a variety of mediums, and incorporates many of the other sub-categories of AAT. This approach primarily benefits:
    • Addicts in inpatient rehabilitative therapy,
    • Inpatients of mental facilities,
    • Inmates of correctional institutions, and
    • Residents of assisted living communities or nursing homes.
  • Rehabilitative art therapyThe Center for International Rehabilitation Research and Exchange at the University of Buffalo states, that the “multi-faceted amalgamation of disciplines” of art therapy are useful in creating different methods of approach to healing and mental health. Rehabilitative art therapy is very similar to clinical art therapy, but does not necessarily take place in a clinical environment, and its primary purpose is to rehabilitate a person so that they can re-integrate into society and lead a productive life. It benefits:
    • Drug addicts and alcoholics,
    • Those suffering from physical or mental trauma,
    • Abuse victims, and
    • Incarcerated individuals
  • Phototherapy– This is a relatively new form of art assisted therapy. It involves looking through old snapshots and photo albums of the addict and the people important to them. This allows the addict to re-connect with their past, while giving the therapist insight into their development. This is also a useful method for improving self-esteem in patients with long-term diseases, and those with terminal illnesses. It primarily benefits:
    • Addicts who are rebuilding their lives,
    • Addicts troubled by their past,
    • Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and
    • Parents dealing with a terminally ill child.
  • Digital media art therapy– This is by far the most controversial art therapy practice. It involves using digital media to create collages, paintings, or drawings. Critics contend that using preexisting images detracts from the creative aspects of art therapy, and the use of digital media does not allow the addicts to really connect with their art or express themselves through it. Supporters contend that it is more relevant to today’s youth, which are an increasingly large portion of those in treatment for addiction.

What are the Benefits of Art Assisted Therapy?

Art has been around as long as man has, and as such seems to resound in some way with all people, regardless of their heritage or experiences. Because of this undeniable effect of art, and the fact that it is connected to every facet of human existence, it should come as no surprise that using art in addiction therapy is successful. There are numerous stories of breakthroughs in the treatment of patients as a direct result of art therapy.

Art assisted addiction therapy provides:

  • A constructive outlet for anger and aggression due to drug use,
  • A wide range of approaches, that allow it to be used for almost any addict,
  • A way for addicts to express emotions or thoughts they can’t put into words,
  • Comfort,
  • Improved motor coordination,
  • Opening an avenue for therapists to better communicate with the addicts, which allows for more focused treatment,
  • Increased cognitive function, and
  • Improved self-esteem.

This is in no way a complete list of the benefits of art assisted addiction therapy. For every success, there are more benefits revealed, and as this is still a relatively new science, it is expected that many more will be revealed.

What are the Drawbacks of Art Assisted Therapy?

While the drawbacks of art assisted therapy are relatively few, they do still exist. These drawbacks are:

  • That art therapy alone will not cure, or effectively treat any disease or disorder,
  • The lack of available places offering art therapy,
  • A severe shortage of licensed art therapists, due to the rigorous and varied nature of the training and education necessary to become licensed,
  • The fact that art assisted therapy is only meant to begin the treatment process, and
  • The lack of research into, and standardized treatments associated with, art therapy.

The largest drawback is the lack of research. Despite being used successfully in psychiatric treatment for over 200 years, little is known about how or why art therapy works.

Regardless of this fact, art assisted therapy does work. The countless testimonials of addicts and therapists prove this. With this knowledge and understanding of art assisted therapy, it is easier for a person to make the decision on whether or not to pursue art therapy in their own treatment.

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