Arts therapies

Explains what arts therapies are, what they are for, what happens during therapy and how to find a therapist.

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The arts therapies and how they may help

[Note: This information only covers regulated arts therapies. It does not cover therapeutic activities that are not regulated, such as writing or reading groups. It also does not cover doing arts informally to help with a mental health problem, if done without a therapist.]

What are arts therapies?

Arts therapies are a way of using the arts – for example, music, art, dance or drama – in a therapeutic environment with a trained therapist. In arts therapy, your therapist helps you to express yourself by creating something – such as a piece of music, a painting or a play. This can help you express your feelings, often without using words.

When I couldn't talk without choking on my tears, the therapy gave me a voice and a way to express myself without having to talk.

You do not need to have any special skill or previous experience of doing art, music, dance or drama to find an arts therapy helpful. The aim is not to produce a wonderful work of art, but to use your creations to understand yourself better.

Your therapist will help you think about what you create and how it relates to your feelings and experiences. This can help you come to terms with any difficult feelings, events or memories that may be causing you problems. Many people find arts therapy can help them learn to deal with, and in some cases recover from, a mental health problem.

After your session, you may discuss what you create with your therapist – for example, talking about the thoughts and feelings that came up during the session and how you are feeling now. Or you may not find this helpful, and find that creating the art, music, dance or drama is enough therapy on its own.

Arts therapies are offered in a wide range of settings, including hospitals, residential care and day centres. They can be done in a group or one-to-one. In a group, you are likely to get to know the other people quickly, and may find out a lot about them. You may find this helpful if you are isolated or find it difficult to get to know people. However, if you are a private person, or wish to work on issues you would not want to share with other people, you might find one-to-one sessions more useful. As with other types of therapy, your relationship with your therapist is very important, and you should feel comfortable sharing your feelings with them. (See Regulation of therapists and how to find one)

Who are arts therapies for?

Arts therapies may be helpful for any kind of mental health problem, whatever your diagnosis. You may be offered an arts therapy as your main form of treatment, or in addition to other treatments, such as medication or a talking treatment. (See Drugs and treatments for more information about different types of treatments.)

Arts therapies can be particularly helpful if:

  • you feel distanced from your feelings
  • you find it too upsetting to talk about painful experiences, and would therefore find it difficult to benefit from talking therapies, such as counselling or psychotherapy.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that arts therapies should be considered for everyone with a diagnosis of schizophrenia and related diagnoses, such as schizoaffective disorder. (See Useful contacts).


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