Thinking about training in Art Therapy? Your questions answered....
Updated: Aug 23
I get contacted fairly regularly by people thinking about a career in Art Therapy. Some decide to pursue this and others don't but I think its important to be able to make an informed decision about the commitment to the training and the potentials of what your career might look like.
I've decided to post about some of the common questions that I get asked - these are only my experiences and opinions. Yours might be different - but either way I hope that this is helpful to you, for whatever reason you're interested.
How did you get into Art Therapy?
My personal journey started with my Fine Art Degree, though I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do with it until I'd finished. At school I liked art class and found making things was cathartic for me when I felt stressed. I also saw the value in others being creative whilst working as a support worker for adults with learning disabilities in supported living, so this made me want to train as an Art Psychotherapist. My main goals were: I wanted to help people and have a creative aspect and this to me, seemed to combine these two things perfectly.
I originally applied for the course straight from my degree and I was not successful - I was given really constructive feedback about having more experience of working with people (this is when I started as a support worker) and I reapplied after having done that for a number of years. I think this was the right call and I learned a lot before I applied again. This made my MA experience far less daunting.
How long does it take to qualify?
Usually a registered Art Psychotherapist will have studied for a minimum of 5 years - that's some sort of undergraduate training (degree) and then an Masters specifically in Art Psychotherapy. There's a few places that offer this, though its not really common. It's important to make sure that when you're thinking about which course to take you do your research and make sure that you will be able to be recognised as a qualified Psychotherapist at the end of it. It's quite common to see 'Art Therapy' qualifications online which are often not properly regulated and won't mean you can register with the HCPC. After this initial 5 years you need to keep up to date with training and may decide to follow a speciality such as working with veterans, or further qualifications in clinical supervision (supporting other therapists in their practice). Its also common for therapists to go into academic writing and/or research further into their careers. The learning doesn't really stop.
What's the course like?
My experience of my course was intense! It's a big commitment. I studied at Derby for 2 years full time inclusive of placement. It's also compulsory that you attend weekly therapy during that time to support your learning and self exploration. Its incredibly difficult to do all the inward 'work' on yourself and your own experiences whilst also learning theory, writing essays and working with clients for the first time. At the time I remember this being really challenging but also incredibly rewarding and I really loved having an art studio again. There's a lot of self reflection and learning through experiencing things (such as an experiential group for your cohort). This can be an unusual feeling when you take part in this for the first time - but it goes a long way to forming your understanding and thinking about spaces you might facilitate in future.
What is Art Therapy and what does your job look like?
When I qualified in 2014 I managed a mental health charity for a period of time before turning my focus back to traditional therapy work. Traditional Art Psychotherapy or Art Therapy (these things mean the same thing) is usually a very specific way of working - this would be working either in a one to one or group setting working with creative materials as a mode of self expression to process and understand feelings and experiences in a safe way. You are often sitting with peoples distress and uncertainty and its common to do this is a self-directed way so that you aren't 'teaching' any specific art skills necessarily, more allowing space to experiment and explore. My professional practice has been very varied - you can find Art Psychotherapists in all sorts of places like charities, within NHS adult and young people settings, schools and many more.
You can also find creative practitioners delivering wellbeing sessions who aren't trained Art Psychotherapists. You can work creatively with groups and individuals in different ways that aren't Art Therapy but foster wellbeing and creativity.
I recently joined the NHS as an Art Psychotherapist in a role I have been in for 12 months on a part-time basis. This has been the first time that I have been in a department/team of people who are also Art Therapists! Until this point I had mostly been working independently and/or in settings as a singular practitioner with that role. Being part of a larger team of Art Therapists who work across different settings is really great and unusual in my experience. Often we may work alongside counsellors, psychologists or other professional mental health roles within a larger team.
What the best thing about your job?
By far the best thing about all of my work is the variety of people that I get to work with. I also really enjoy the creative aspect of the job and therefore having that built into my day to day is really great for me. Often I make artwork with clients, or sometimes thinking of them to help me make sense of what's going on (this is called reflective practice). I also make my own art for pleasure which is a large part of my practice and often hold creative spaces that would not be considered 'therapy'. Within those spaces I still have the psychological understanding from my training which underpins everything I do. This is what works for me and my practice but everyone is different. I enjoy working in different settings throughout my working week.
What do you think one of the main challenges in your job is?
People understanding what I do! There is still a lot of misunderstanding about what Art Psychotherapy is and is used for. This is something that I consistently try and help with by posting and talking to people about my work. British Association of Art Psychotherapists (BAAT) are keen to help with this this too. I also find that sometimes this impacts the work that we do because sometimes we can be asked to do things that don't quite fit or sessions are unexpectedly cut short with no therapeutic and trauma informed thinking to build in a soft ending for people who are already struggling.
Self-care is also incredibly important in this field because we are constantly trying to meet people where they are and sometimes this means in their trauma, sadness or complex experiences. This can take a lot of energy and we need to make sure that we are looking after ourselves well, to be able to really show up and be there for our clients.
What art forms do you do?
I do all sorts and that's how I like it. I often use paper and paint during sessions. I very much work in a mixed media way but I tend to go through phases with my creating alongside what I might be doing with clients. I am influenced by the spaces I am facilitating within that time frame and what materials I have access too. I really like to work in collage with anything and everything. It's like making order out of the chaos. I also paint, with oils and acrylics and draw when the mood takes me. I have done series of sculptural works before as well as working with found objects. I find I can make with what I have in a moment. To me the act of being creative is far more important than the outcome and I try and make sure that I flex this muscle regularly and try not to limit myself to 'this is what I do'.
What else should I know?
Health and Care Professionals Council (HCPC) - Once you qualify as an Art Psychotherapist, you apply to be registered as a qualified clinician with the HCPC (there is a fee each year to stay registered as practicing) and as part of this they have things you need to comply with as a registered professional. Some of these include keeping up with training, and specifically for Art Therapy continuing your own art making practice alongside your work. HCPC is a registered body for other medical clinicians such as physiotherapists and nurses and you are accountable to them if someone makes a complaint against you. If you choose to step away from doing therapy work you can apply to re register as a clinician and have to complete some hours to do so to get back into your practice. Often people are not aware of the commitment to working in this way and registration process.
Supervision - Art Psychotherapists are also expected to comply with supervisory guidelines along side their practice. This means that you have regular check ins about the clinical work with another clinician who is usually in a similar field and you talk through whats currently happening with clients to unpick things a bit more but also to make sure that what you are doing is ethically sound. This supervisor is sometimes provided by your employer or you can arrange or come with your own to certain settings. I have started writing about different types of supervision a bit here.
These two aspects of this career add costs and commitment to the career pathway which people are often not aware of.
What would you say to someone thinking about training to do Art Psychotherapy?
I would say - go for it! Make sure you have a clear understanding of what the therapy part looks like and that you actually want to do that, and that will help to will you through the tough times. Its well worth doing and especially if you love a challenge and new experiences. Your comfort zones will certainly transform - and that's not always conformable. Really think about how you can support yourself financially and possible places you would like to experience working in. Placement is such a HUGE part of the training and makes you contacts you can use throughout the rest of your career.
Do you have any questions about Art Therapy? Why not leave a comment below this post and we will do our best to answer so others can read it too.