Art Therapy: It’s Not What You Think

creative expression paint supplies

Show me…

Art therapy has always been a part of Sanford Behavioral Health’s programming. One of the tenants of art therapists is to ask a group to “show me.” Of course, when asking someone to “show” something, they are asking them to show themselves. Sanford embraces creative expression as a viable and effective framework for treatment.  Because of this, we have created a space for those individuals in our care who prefer non-verbal counseling or visual language.


Grand Rapids Art Scene

And when possible, we also utilize the vibrant art community in Grand Rapids as a catalyst for therapeutic discussion. We use museums, Artprize, Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park, and Sanford’s art collection as inspiration. Sanford Behavioral Health’s facilities all contain original art and colorful prints on the walls. A UC Berkley Study shows that the awe we feel from art and nature benefits the body’s defense system. And looking at beautiful things can reduce cortisol levels (the primary indicator of stress).


What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy involves coloring outside of the lines – it necessitates self-work and digging deep. Additionally, it has several components, and like all therapy, it is a deliberate, moving, relational process that unfolds over time.


eating disorder art therapy

The Art Therapy room at Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders.


Art therapy takes place both “on the page” and through conversation. Its goals are the same as traditional talk therapy, but the format feels more physical, visual, and playful. Art therapy relies on this cornerstone: art materials and processes aid individuals in communicating their ideas, allowing others insight into their perceptions and experience of the world.


Art Therapy IS:

A legitimized and certifiable method of counseling.  An art therapist has completed masters level education in Art Therapy and is designated by the letters ATR or MSAT. Many art therapists are dual licensed Art Therapists and Counselors.


It might sound counter-intuitive, but this type of therapy is not intended to target artistic types specifically. In fact, art therapy could be more aptly named “visual therapy” or “hands-on counseling.” Art therapy has less to do with art and more to do with using one’s body to expand upon what one is verbally saying. It utilizes an individual’s whole self, and breaks down the barriers and limitations of using only one form of expression. Art therapy is writing letters, clenching your fists, or working in silence.


therapy outdoors

We take therapy out of doors whenever possible.


Art Therapy IS NOT:

Art therapy is not art class. Therapists do have great ideas about ways to express oneself in session, but they are not too concerned with technical skill level. This therapy type may be a new, novel medium for expressing yourself. And although the therapy can be inspiring and experimental, we are still addressing goals and developing conclusions and insights. Sanford clients are sometimes taken aback when we reach a counseling “aha” moment while making a mask or a paper lantern.


Experiential Therapy

At Sanford Behavioral Health, we integrate experiential therapy into the recovery process whenever possible. Experiential therapy utilizes recreation, creative expression, and other activity-based techniques to restore physical and psychological health. Further, the mind and body connection is crucial to long-term wellness. Activities such as art, movement, yoga, and therapeutic excursions can be an essential adjunct to the more traditional therapies. Art therapy is utilized in addiction and eating disorder treatment at Sanford Behavioral Health.



844 with lake Michigan

Sanford Behavioral Health is licensed and accredited as an addiction, eating disorder, and co-occurring mental health treatment facility, serving all of Michigan and beyond. Each of Sanford’s facilities in Greater Grand Rapids is carefully and diligently crafted to create a welcoming and comforting environment. Sanford is led by a psychiatrist-led team of medical, clinical, and support personnel providing medication-assisted, evidenced-based treatment to residential, outpatient, and telehealth patients. For more information, visit