Arts and wellbeing

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What is art therapy? (Video file)

What is art therapy?

Neil Springham, Head of Art Therapy at Oxleas, answers questions about what art therapy is and how it can help people.

What is art therapy?

Could you explain what art therapy actually is?

Art therapy is where you sit with the therapist and make pictures. Generally the therapist doesn’t make pictures. The therapist is there to help you think about what those pictures might mean. The pictures don’t have fixed meanings. We don’t work from a book that says red means this and black means that. What’s really important is what you think they mean and the therapist helps you to discuss that and help you think how you might move forward with your difficulties.

What is the therapy part of art therapy?

 I think the therapy part of art therapy is partly in the art. It’s just by putting things into artwork makes them feel more manageable and that helps them to understand. But in addition to that it gives them a chance to discuss with the therapist what they are thinking about and what comes up in the image. There are two parts to it really and they are equally as important.

How can what I draw, tell you what is going on with me?

What people draw in art therapy is really up to them and what’s really interesting is what they draw is normally extremely relevant to what they need to think about and talk about in therapy.

Does it matter if you can’t draw?

No, it doesn’t really help to be able to draw or paint and you don’t need to have any artistic skill at all. In fact it’s really good if you come to it fresh and have not done much at all.

How long does treatment last?

Treatment can last from 6 weeks up to two years and that’s something we would be able to talk to you about and for you to be ok with.

Is it suitable for any problem?

Yes. Art therapy is suitable for any type of problem because the art is a very helpful language and sometimes it helps people who aren’t used to speaking, to find ways of talking about what’s going on.

Will it be one to one or in a group?

The art therapy can be one to one but very often it’s a group setting because you get a lot of valuable feedback from members of a group and normally the people in the group have had similar experiences to you so what they say is very, very valuable.

Will it be confidential?

Yes. The art therapy is confidential. It is confidential to the team so if you have been referred by someone we will talk to that person about what has been going on, but what we talk about won’t go to anyone else and we won’t show your pictures to anyone else.

What is the purpose of doing art therapy as opposed to other therapies?

I think the purpose of doing art therapy is where you have issues which are difficult to put into words. Sometimes words are just not enough and actually for centuries people have used art as a way of expressing things that are difficult  and that is what art therapy is trying to tap into. Sometimes it’s through making images or making things that you can express things that you can’t put into words.

The arts have been central to all human civilizations and endeavours. The arts help us to feel and to share what it is to be alive. By giving us new ways of looking at our experience, the arts can help us to make sense of life and so play a vital role in our wellbeing. Ivan Lewis, Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Care Services 2008, recently said this about the arts: 

"A recent study by the Department of Health and the Department for Media Culture and Sport (‘Mental Health, social inclusion and the arts: developing the evidence base’) has shown that as a result of participating in the arts, there were significant improvements in empowerment, mental health and social inclusion for people with mental health problems. Participating in the arts increases self esteem, self confidence and feelings of empowerment and reduces social isolation by broadening social networks." 

We can benefit from the arts by both taking part and as spectators. Visiting galleries, concerts, theatres or cinemas can transform the way we feel. This effect is often increased if we go with others and share the experience. Research has shown that listening to or viewing the arts even helps our wellbeing on a physical level. 

Dancing, acting, singing or painting etc. can all be deeply satisfying and great fun. Sadly, many have been criticised when they were younger and this leaves people thinking they are not good enough to do art themselves. However, arts organisations are increasingly sensitive to this and spend time helping people to feel more confident so that they can take part. 

More Than Words

The very best way to understand the power of the arts is to hear from people who use them in their lives. The More Than Words project uses people’s own artworks to describe how the arts help them.

View the More Than Words page here.

Contact us

For more information about the arts and wellbeing, please contact:

Neil Springham. Consultant Art Therapist and Trust Wide Head of Art Therapy

Email: neil.springham@nhs.net