Benefits of Art Therapy for Mental Health

a person is painting in art therapy with other patients in the program

Show me.


At Sanford Behavioral Health, we are always asking patients to “show me.” Show me where in the image you are feeling a conflict. Show me how you would change that. Of course, when we ask someone to show us something, we ask them to show themselves. In Sanford’s mental health treatment, patients participate in art therapy, a type of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary mode of communication. It allows patients to express their thoughts and feelings through art making, providing them with a safe space to process and explore their emotions without words. Art therapy can be beneficial in treating various issues, such as depression, anxiety, grief, and trauma. To learn more about Sanford Behavioral Health’s programs, contact us today at 616.202.3326.

Understanding Art Therapy for Mental Health

Art therapy allows individuals to explore their mental health creatively and comfortably. This therapy encourages self-expression and understanding, which can help relieve feelings of depression, anxiety, trauma, or stress. Art therapists are trained to use art materials, such as paints and clay, and verbally guided techniques to help those seeking care gain insight into their struggles. Through art therapy, people can create an outlet for difficult emotions while also using art to connect with aspects of themselves they may not wish to engage with verbally. Art therapy is a powerful tool that can be used to cope with mental health issues while uncovering unique opportunities for self-growth.


art therapy

Connecting to personal insights in art therapy


Three Acts of Art Therapy

The three main acts of art therapy are creating artwork, reflecting on the artwork, and connecting to personal insights. Creating artwork can help someone understand how they process their emotions. When reflecting on the artwork, a therapist will guide a patient to explore their feelings or sensations associated with it.

Act – Introductions and Warm-Up

“Preparing the space” is an integral part of the therapeutic process because it provides the patient with predictability, reliability, and consistency. In addition, art therapy necessitates a large, clean surface and quick access to tools and materials. The session begins with some background about art therapy or what to expect from art therapy treatment.

All group sessions begin with a warm-up. Watercolor is popular at Sanford House. First, patients spend 15-20 minutes doing what is referred to as “mark making” or “moving color across the page.” This warm-up aims to wake up the hands, eyes, and brain. The warm-up art is “non-objective.” You may be surprised at how quickly the 15 minutes passed and feel pretty zen from the watercolor’s quiet time and meditative movement.

Act II – The Actual Art Therapy Stuff

One of the wonderful things about art therapy is its practice in several ways. The session’s structure depends on the therapist’s style, theoretical orientation, and preferences. For example, some art therapists talk very little. Some rely heavily on counseling techniques and do lots of talking. Still, other art therapists incorporate a strong educational element into their sessions, and you’ll walk away with a new skill. As long as an art therapist leads your art therapy session and that art therapist is respectful, knowledgable, and acutely engaged, there isn’t a wrong way to do art therapy.

There tends to be a focus on one activity per session, called a “directive.” Each directive is based on an artistic style or technique and tailored to meet the therapeutic goals and needs of the group. For example, there will be a discussion about the purpose of masks and how masks have been used in art. This discussion stems from a few prompts that get displayed during art making. And then patients start making art.

Act III – Discussion

This part is important. Patients express with their hands, and now they’ll express with words. Discussion centers around what people have made, how the process felt, and the metaphors illuminated in assigning words and phrases to our images. Then things get a little weird.

At this point in the discussion, some questions may seem silly, nonsensical, and “out there.” However, art therapists ask questions that challenge the norms and societal expectations of what it means to be a healthy individual. By asking these open-ended questions, art therapists can gain insight into how patients view themselves and the world around them. After the discussion and everyone has had an opportunity to speak about their art piece, the session will end with a guided meditation.


Learn More About Art Therapy for Depression and Mental Health at Sanford Behavioral Health

Art therapy is a potent tool in helping to treat depression. Whether you’re dealing with depression or another mental health issue, art therapy can be a great way to gain insight into your feelings and work towards overall wellness. At Sanford Behavioral Health, we have skilled therapists who specialize in art therapy for mental health and are ready to help you. Art therapy can help with your mental health by allowing you to express yourself in a new and creative way and can help reduce stress, increase self-awareness, and build coping skills. If you’re interested in exploring art therapy for your mental health and well-being, contact us today at 616.202.3326.


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Marilyn Spiller is a viral writer, recovery coach, and recovery advocate. She is the Marketing Director at Sanford, responsible for written and creative content, website design, new media, promotions, subscriber outreach, and SEO. Excursions Magazine is a particular source of pride; it serves a wide range of readers, and “excursion” has become part of the company vernacular, describing Sanford’s signature experiential outings for those in treatment. She also developed and hosts the podcast Anatomy of Addiction and is Vice President of the Board of JACK Mental Health Advocacy.