Ask the Expert: Robyn Alliah of River Valley Behavioral Health and Wellness Center

Robyn Alliah of River Valley Behavioral Health / Photo from Alliah

We feature an expert in the mental health and substance use disorder field to answer questions. This issue we talk to Robyn Alliah of River Valley Behavioral Health and Wellness Center about using art therapy in recovery and mental health.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy uses art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork as a therapeutic and healing process. Art therapists are trained in both art and therapy. The process is not an art lesson – it is grounded in the knowledge of human development, psychological theories, and counseling techniques.1Art therapy helps people to use creativity and self-expression to support their mental health.2

Art therapy includes a mix of art with verbal processing of the artwork. The process of art making helps create personal meaning and expression. The artwork allows the client to find words or understanding for events, conflicts, emotions, self-awareness, and assists with moving forwards in their journey of life.

What types of needs and challenges can be addressed through art therapy?

When people come to therapy, they are often looking to find meaning or create change. Art therapy can provide a unique avenue for transformation, which differs from only talk therapy. Art making provides emotional healing through creative expression.

Art therapy can help with symptom management, such as reducing worries, decreasing irritability, and regulating the nervous system. It also helps to understand and shift core belief systems (i.e., Am I good enough?), reduce cognitive distortions (i.e., what if’s, worst case-scenario), reduce distress and conflict, increase problem-solving, empower, and increase self-esteem. Art helps increase a person’s ability to function in areas such as relationships and boundaries.

Art therapists work with a variety of diagnosis such as anxiety, depression, trauma, addictions, grief, and eating disorders. They also work with veterans, first responders, LGBTQIA+, cancer patients, and many other communities.

What might a typical session of art therapy look like for an individual?

Sessions are tailored specifically for each person and their desired goals. The client/therapist relationship is a key component to the therapeutic process. A session might include check-in, goal to work towards, choice of art materials, with or without a directive prompt, creation of artmaking, and verbal processing image.

People symbolically make changes within art itself and begin to move forward in their life’s journey.Art therapists may prompt metaphors and similes to encourage creative expression and multi-layered meanings. Art therapists prompt questions about the artwork to verbally process the image, to help find meaning, and how to move forwards.

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An example is “Draw yourself as a rose.” Materials may include colored pencils, markers, or oil pastels. The client then creates the artwork alongside the therapist. Questions which assist in the verbal processing of the artwork may include, “Where are you planted, ground/pot? Are there cracks? Are you a single or multiple flowers? A stem with/without thorns?” These responses provide information related to “how the client feels about their environment.” The client and therapist discuss meanings, and infallibly the art is what the client says.

Do you have to be good at art to benefit from art therapy?

People do not need any type of art background or be good at art. The focus of art therapy is the process of creating artwork, self-expression, and the creative process of making art with personal meaning.

How can art therapy benefit someone’s mental health?

Art therapists are specifically trained in areas that include psychotherapy theories, ethics, art materials, understanding symbols that are present, guiding subconscious meaning, and viewing situations from various perspectives. The art can provide a new understanding about life events, situations, and feelings when there are no words.

Art therapy helps clients improve their function in areas such as relationships, work, social, and life skills, and helps increase a sense of personal well-being.

What types of outcomes have you seen?

People use art therapy to process events, often with directive prompts or protocols. The art provides a new understanding of an issue from different perspectives and allows exploration of subconscious thoughts. People symbolically make changes within art itself and begin to move forward in their life’s journey.

A specific client used art therapy to work through a traumatic event. The trauma impacted the nervous system and the body held onto specific unpleasant body sensations. Art making created an opportunity to change the impacted senses: Smells, textures, sounds, and visuals with an introduction and use of new materials. Art therapy helped shift and subside traumatic nightmares. Expressive movements with specific materials foster the release of internal body sensations. Making meaning in the artwork helped guide the client towards less negative and intrusive thoughts while recreating new memories.

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Who benefits most from art therapy?

Anyone can benefit from art therapy, meaning all ages, genders, disabilities, mental health issues, and specific populations (veterans, cancer patients, etc.). The relationship with the art therapist is a key component to benefiting from art therapy.

Therapy can be done with an individual, group, couples, and with family formats.

However, if a person does not believe they would benefit or are resistant towards making art and trusting the process, art therapy might not be the modality for them.

What are some resources that are available to people who are seeking art therapy?

Resources would include the American Art Therapy Association: https://arttherapy.org. The site includes a link to an Art Therapist locator: https://arttherapy.org/art-therapist-locator/  to help find art therapists in your location.

Psychology Today also has listings for art therapists in your area. Look for credentials which indicate specific art therapy training, such as ATR (Registered Art Therapist) or ATR-BC (Board Certified Art Therapist).

Many art therapists have additional state requirements (such as a mental health license) and are available in clinics, as well as group, and private practices.

References:

  1. Art Therapy Credentials Board, Inc., What is Art Therapy?, accessed from: https://atcb.org/what-is-art-therapy
  2. org, What is Art Therapy?, accessed from: https://www.psychology.org/resources/what-is-art-therapy/

Robyn Alliah, ATR-BC, LPCC, CCTP, graduated from Florida State University with a master’s degree in  in 2006. She is a Board-Certified Art Therapist, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, and a Certified Clinical Trauma Professional.

In 2015, she helped develop and facilitate trauma informed therapy groups for military veterans.

Robyn has been working at River Valley Behavioral Health and Wellness Center since 2016. She sees adolescents through adults and primarily works with trauma, ADHD, anxiety, and depression issues. She also helps clients create a healthy sense of being.

Last Updated on July 8, 2024

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