Enough Talk: Art therapy provides an alternate means of self expression

Athena Kobin is a licensed mental health counselor and art therapist who uses art in her practice to help older teens and adults express themselves in a different way than what they may be accustomed to. Kobin and I had a recent discussion about what art therapy is, who benefits from it, and how to use art as a coping skill.

Emily Olson (Motif): What is art therapy?

Athena Kobin: People in art therapy use the creative process in some capacity — through clay, paint, drawing, pen and paper, collage, found objects — and use the resulting artwork to explore feelings and reconcile conflicts. It can manage behaviors, help people cope with anxiety or reconcile conflicts.

EO: How do you use art therapy in your practice?

AK: With teens, I use it as a way to teach coping skills and explore the mind/body connection. For example, I might ask them to draw where in their body they feel something. Or portray to me through art what’s happening in their mind. Sometimes, they can’t describe an emotion verbally, but they can draw it, and a drawn feeling is often safer to explore because it’s separating these floating, negative thoughts from their mind.

With adults, I explore archetypes as a form of self awareness and self expression. I might ask them to create their own perception of how archetypes appear within them.

Clients of all ages can benefit from process painting, which is creating art based on the emotions you’re feeling in the moment. A person might work on the same painting week to week, taking pictures as they go, and creating a diary of their emotions.

EO: What is the therapist’s role in this process?

AK: I’m trained to notice themes and patterns, so I see things that come up. But art therapists aren’t interpreters. It’s more about guiding the client to reflect on their own work.

EO: Do clients ever have to break through internal boundaries to benefit from art therapy?

AK: It does take a while for people to make art without putting their own judgement on it. People try to make something pretty or representative instead of expressive, and it takes a lot of time and patience for individuals to let go of the art. In art therapy, it’s the process that really matters, but that’s not how we’re taught to do things so it’s hard for people to be authentically okay with it.

EO: Who benefits from art therapy?

AK: Art therapy improves interpersonal skills, provides alternate coping skills, increases self esteem and cognitive ability. I’ve seen so many different people who can really benefit from art therapy. People with learning disabilities, people dealing with pressure or stress, people having trouble in school, people with anxiety, depression, PTSD, brain injuries, cancer — the list goes on and on.

Art therapy is something interesting to try for someone who is resistant to other forms of treatment or who are in therapy and feel like they’re not getting enough — talk therapy doesn’t work, I need more, I need to express myself in a different way. It really works for anyone who is open to self expression.

EO: Does art therapy need to be guided?

AK: Art therapy is a guided practice with a trained therapist, but art as therapy works. You can make mandalas, a worry creature — there are plenty of directives on the internet for people who want to try using art in this way.

The best way to find an art therapist is through a quick internet search. Although there is an Art Therapy Association website, their resources aren’t comprehensive. Kobin cautions potential clients to seek a therapist who is a registered art therapist (ATR), a board certified art therapist (ATRBC) or licensed creative arts therapist (LCAT). Athena Kobin can be found at Lighthouse Counseling Associates (