The Three Acts of Art Therapy for Mental Health

person painting with watercolor in art therapy

Sanford clients first express with their hands, and then they’ll express with words.

Art Therapy is a type of psychotherapy that uses art media as its primary form of communication. It allows our clients in addiction, eating disorders, and mental health treatment to express their thoughts and feelings through art making. In so doing, art therapy provides a safe space to process and explore emotions without words. At Sanford Behavioral Health, art therapy can be beneficial in treating various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and trauma.


Mental Health Benefits of Art Therapy

Art therapy is facilitated by master’s level or above art therapists. Because of this, they encourage self-expression and understanding, which can help relieve feelings of depression, anxiety, trauma, or stress. Art therapists are trained to use art materials like paints and clay. They use verbally guided techniques to help those in our care gain insight into complex mental health conditions. 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.



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 guides individuals to explore their feelings or sensations associated with the work.


Act I – Introductions and Warm-Up

“Preparing the space” is an integral part of the therapeutic process because it provides the client 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.

Group sessions begin with a warm-up. First, clients 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 or does not represent a person, place, or thing.


Act II – The Actual Art Therapy

One of the beautiful things about art therapy is its practice. 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 robust educational element into their sessions. As long as an art therapist leads an art therapy session and the art therapist is respectful, knowledgeable, 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 pre-made models displayed during art making. And then our clients start making art.


eating disorder art therapy for mental health table and chairs

The art therapy room at Sanford Comprehensive Treatment for Eating Disorders


Act III – Discussion

This part is important. Sanford clients first express with their hands, and then 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 interesting.

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 ends with a guided meditation.


Experiential Therapy at Sanford Behavioral Health

Sanford Behavioral Health integrates 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, eating disorders, and co-occurring mental health treatment at Sanford Behavioral Health.


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