Experiential Therapy

The Use of Art Therapy in the Addiction Treatment Process

Substance abuse recovery involves much more than clearing drugs or alcohol from the body. Overcoming the disease of addiction requires an understanding of the origins of substance abuse, the motivating factors for recovery, and the reasons for resistance to healing. Art therapy serves as a vehicle for the psychological component of recovery by providing an emotional outlet and a means of self-expression. Feelings or experiences that are too painful or shameful to articulate can be expressed through ink, paint, clay, or other media. When combined with other recovery services, such as detox, individual therapy, support groups, and family counseling, art therapy can be a powerful way to promote the healing process.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a form of experiential therapy, an approach to recovery that addresses emotional and spiritual needs through creative or physical activity. It is not necessary to have a background in the arts or artistic talent to participate; individuals only need to be open to the experience and to engage actively to benefit from these sessions. Many clients find that art therapy is a relaxing and enjoyable way to address some of the more complex aspects of rehab. Creative activity provides a way to process some of the stressful emotions and anxieties that can emerge during treatment. After rehab, activities like painting or drawing, can be used throughout the individual’s life as a way to express feelings, explore creativity, and reduce stress.

Art Therapy for Addiction Treatment

According to the American Art Therapy Association (AATA), art therapy is a mental health modality that can help the individual in a variety of important ways:

  • By resolving emotional conflicts
  • By building self-esteem
  • By encouraging self-awareness
  • By reducing anxiety
  • By developing social skills

One of the primary goals of art therapy is to help the client return to healthy functioning, whether that be on a social, emotional, or cognitive level. It can be particularly useful in the treatment of individuals who have experienced personal trauma, such as childhood abuse, sexual assault, violence, or a natural disaster. Memories and experiences that are too powerful to confront directly can be explored through the vehicle of visual media, allowing the release of tension and fear in a safe environment. Creative activity gives the individual in recovery a sense of control that may be lacking in life. In this sense, art can become a coping strategy for dealing with the challenges of recovery.

On a social level, art therapy sessions can serve as a form of group therapy, creating bonds among peers. As clients work together on guided projects, they can learn new methods of coping, share their responses to therapy, and practice their collaborative skills. On a more general level, art therapy can act as an introduction to the pleasures of creative activity.

Art therapy is practiced in a wide range of settings, from community mental health centers to inpatient psychiatric units, medical facilities, schools, and residential recovery centers. This versatile treatment modality can be applied in almost any therapeutic context, from individual therapy to group sessions and family or marriage counseling.

art therapy in treatment stats

Is Art Therapy Effective?

A study of art therapy programs in substance abuse treatment published in the Journal of Addictions Nursing found that 36.8 percent of programs in the study sample offered art therapy as part of a comprehensive rehab program.

This study also found that art therapy was particularly successful when combined with therapies that focus on motivating the client and encouraging active participation.

One such modality is Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET), an approach that brings the therapist and client together in a collaborative relationship to stop substance abuse.

Art Therapy: Journal of the American Art Therapy Association notes that art therapy can be very effective at breaking down resistance to treatment and overcoming ambivalence about recovery in rehab clients.


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The Role of Art in Trauma Therapy

Many individuals who enter recover programs are living with the residual effects of traumatic experiences, from past abuse to recent violence or loss. For the survivors of trauma, substance abuse can be used as a dysfunctional coping mechanism to manage unbearable feelings of grief, rage, or guilt. According to Psychology Today, art therapy has been used successfully as a healing intervention for children who have survived the trauma of war. The act of creating images and objects with paint, clay, chalk, or crayons is itself a therapeutic process for these children, as well as a way to depict the unspeakable acts that they have seen. By the same token, adults who have lived through domestic violence, natural disasters, violent crimes, or acts of terrorism can use art to express their responses to these incidents in a safe, supportive context.

Fashionable Artist In The Mountain

Since 1945, art therapy has been used to help veterans and active military members overcome the trauma of combat. The Veterans Administration began using art therapy at a hospital in Topeka, Kansas, to help soldiers returning from World War II process their feelings of shock, grief, and sorrow. Art therapy continues to be a vital part of the VA’s mental health program and is currently used in VA psychiatric facilities throughout the country to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, an anxiety disorder caused by exposure to life-threatening or shocking events. The Art Therapy Association states that this treatment modality can help to resolve post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in numerous ways, including by:

  • Promoting emotional release
  • Resolving painful emotions
  • Externalizing traumatic memories
  • Reducing behaviors that interfere with daily functioning
  • Encouraging healthy, fulfilling behaviors
  • Restoring self-esteem

In veterans and other individuals who have used drugs or alcohol to cope with trauma, art can bring about an understanding of the nature of addiction as a disease. It can also be used to reinforce the individual’s commitment to recovery, to promote self-reflection, and to provide an experience of spirituality, notes AATA.

The benefits of art therapy are available to individuals from all socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of their financial resources. Artists for Trauma, a nonprofit organization, uses the creative arts as a tool to help military and civilian survivors overcome the effects of traumatic events and live healthy, fulfilling lives. This organization matches professional artists in the community with individuals in need of trauma therapy. These artists work on a volunteer basis to provide and facilitate free, interactive programs that help to facilitate the recovery process. Programs are offered in hospitals, military facilities, community centers, and other locations.