A career as an Art therapist

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Emma Hall helps people to express themselves through art. At some point in their lives, people may find themselves overwhelmed by emotions that are difficult to face or to share. Art therapy helps people to come to terms with their feelings and problems.

What does an art therapist do?

Art therapy gives people an opportunity to explore their deep or painful thoughts in a supportive environment. It involves using a wide variety of art materials to create a visual language of thought and feelings. I work in an adult mental health unit in an NHS hospital and at a school for blind children. People are referred to my sessions by their doctors, occupational therapists or teachers because they are distressed, have behavioural problems, have difficulties with relationships or perhaps have gone through a trauma.

How do you help them?

Initially, I have to assess them to gauge whether art therapy might help them communicate or work through their problems. I also assess whether they might be better having individual sessions or coming to a group.

They then come to me for six weeks, where I offer them guidance and support to explore issues or concerns. They do drawing, painting or claywork in a safe, therapeutic atmosphere away from the wards or classroom.

What is a typical day of an art therapist?

At the hospital in the morning, I run an open group that gives people the freedom to stay as long as they feel they can. The second session, in the afternoon, is more structured and is for patients who can communicate more easily and discuss their problems in more depth. After each session, I give myself time to reflect and then make notes. I also spend a day in the community, running sessions for patients who have been discharged.

What happens in an art therapy session?

I prepare materials, like paints, paper or clay, before the class starts. I do not tell people what to draw or paint, but I will talk to them individually as they are working and I might spot links which identify with their difficulties in their pieces of artwork. Many come from traumatic backgrounds and it can help them to realise that others have shared those experiences.

Who do you art therapists work with?

At the school, there is a team of therapists – so there's a lot of support. At the hospital, I work with the occupational therapists and another art therapist. I also talk to nurses, doctors and psychologists.

What hours do art therapists work?

I run sessions at the hospital for two days a week and spend one day at the school. The rest of the week is spent in preparation. I only qualified six months ago, so I didn't want to take on too much at first, but I will build up to do more sessions each week as I progress.

What are the best and worst parts of your art therapy job?

I like sharing my love of art and it is particularly uplifting when you see it making a difference to people. However, patients can be very upset and aggressive, but that can actually show that the therapy is reaching them.

Emma's route to becoming an art therapist

  • Foundation course in art and design.
  • Degree in illustration.
  • Two-year postgraduate diploma in art psychotherapy.

Art therapist tips

  • You must be strong not to take your patients' problems home with you.
  • Be flexible and prepared to listen without being judgmental.

Art therapist related jobs

Average salary for an art therapist

  • As a newly qualified therapist with NHS, you earn from £25,528, rising to around £40,157 with 9 years experience.
  • If you work in London and the South East, extra payments or allowances may be payable.

Becoming an art therapist

  • You need to take a postgraduate qualification in art therapy – two years full time, or three or four years part time. You have to register with the Health Profession Council before you can practise.
  • To apply for a postgraduate course, you need a degree in art or a similar subject. Other degrees might be considered if you can show you have artistic skill and are committed to the job.
  • You also need at least a year's experience of working in health, education or social care.

Modified: 16 June 2013

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