What is Arts Therapy?

Why see an arts therapist?

For children/teens… they can sometimes present with a range of challenging behaviours and emotional states. These often impede their ability to learn, thrive and experience positive relationships. Therapy can help with behaviours such as: defiant, disruptive or oppositional; inattentive, anxious and or/troubled; poor concentration or hyper-vigilance; depressed, sad, lonely or withdrawn; lack of confidence and poor self-esteem.

Therapy can help when a child has experienced: abuse, neglect and/or attachment disorders; loss and bereavement; family breakdown, adoption and fostering; crisis and change; bullying; natural disasters or political upheaval.

The arts and play are a natural language for children and help give us a window into their unique worlds of experience. They provide a safe space for children to explore, test, re-design and sculpt their stories in a way that makes sense for them.

For adults… therapy can help when a person is experiencing stress, anxiety or depression, has just lost a loved one, needing support to be in relationship with others, been through a break up, wanting to exploring past traumas, understand why certain patterns of harmful (to self or others) behaviour keep occuring, or just interested in developing greater self-awareness and personal growth.

As adults it’s often difficult to get to the root of our behaviours and experiences and understand where certain emotions are coming from. This is because patterns of behaviour have been deeply ingrained over many years and it may require the help of therapist to shed some light on the beliefs and ideas that inform our experiences.

Sometimes this exploration can happen through talk therapy, but sometimes there are things that can’t be put into words or things that may be deeply buried in our subconscious. This is where art can help. When we work with art materials we are often bypassing our rational/logical brain and going straight to the feeling/sensing areas of the brain. This is where trauma is often stored, and where we sometimes find beliefs that are no longing serving us. The art provides a way to externalise that which we’re hoping to explore, and gives us a safe distance from which to unpack and make sense of these things.

The process of making art has many therapeutic qualities even before we start to make sense of what we’ve created. For example, tactile materials can create a sense of groundedness and mindfulness. Some materials can be cathartic to use, while others can actually help regulate the nervous system.

Check out this great article written by Ruby Garyfalakis on the difference between art education and art therapy. 


How is arts therapy different to counselling, clinical psychology, psychiatry, occupational therapy or psychotherapy?

Psychiatrists are medical doctors who are usually seen for ongoing medical management of medications, such as anti-depressants, sleeping tablets, mood stabilisers, etc. Some psychiatrists also use psychotherapy techniques in their practice too.

Occupational therapists support clients to participate fully in meaningful activities (or occupations), especially in the areas of injury rehabilitation or special needs.

Talk therapy is the main thing in common between psychologists, psychotherapists and counsellors. Counsellors are trained to help clients to deal with specific issues in specific areas like couples counselling, addictions counselling or vocational counselling. Psychologists are trained in more short-term symptom-focussed treatments, while psychotherapists tend to deal with longer term therapy for more deep-rooted issues such as childhood trauma or relationship challenges. Psychotherapists are interested in looking below the symptoms to attend to the root of what is causing disturbance and imbalance in the person’s life.

Arts therapists have the most in common with psychotherapists, but as well as using talk therapy they also draw on a range of art modalities (movement, visual arts, play, and drama) to help the client to communicate and express themselves. Arts therapy also shares many similarities with music therapy.

What might happen in an art therapy session?

No two art therapy sessions are the same. They are always led by the client, with support and guidance from the therapist. In a session the therapist might offer suggestions of different art materials or exercises to try. Sometimes the art making might lead into a discussion about feelings, experiences, memories or ideas. Sometimes all the therapy happens in the art making process itself and not a lot of words are spoken at all. The therapist is trained to support the client in a way that makes them feel safe, empowered, and not judged. The therapist is not there to interrogate, or force changes in the clients life. They are there to deeply listen and skillfully guide the client to a place where they feel like they own their own story, instead of their story owning them. Sometimes we work on things in therapy that are very practical, like techniques for how to manage big emotions that arise (these are informed by the latest neuroscience), and sometimes we work on healing difficult things from the past.

After a session the therapist will reflect on what things were helpful and what things were challenging and then this will inform how they guide in the next session.

There’s no set number of sessions that are required as every client is different, although at least 6 sessions is recommended. Sometimes a client may work with a therapist for 2 years, sometimes they might feel ready to move on after 2 months. Some clients may leave therapy and then come back at some point in the future.

It’s really important to find the right therapist. Sometimes a client may leave a therapist early on if they don’t feel that a good relationship is forming. It may not be a good match and there may be a better therapist out there for them.

What sort of art materials do you use? 

Art materials used in a session may include – colour pencils, crayons, felt tips, paints, clay, play dough, sand, toys, drums, puppets, and natural materials. Sometimes there is visual art making, storytelling, play, or movement and dance. It just depends what is most helpful and comfortable for the client.

How much does therapy cost? 

Arts therapists are professionally registered which means they have completed a masters level training, belong to a professional body (ANZACATA) and invest in supervision and continued training / development.

Sessions with Lucy-Mary Mulholland (AThR, MA – Arts Therapy Clinical) at Parnell Natural Health, 532 Parnell Rd, Parnell, Auckland

parnell natural health

Free initial consultation – 30 mins

  • 1 hour individual sessions – $100.00
  • 1 hour group sessions (2-4 clients) – $60.00 per client
  • 1 hour group session (5-8 clients) – $40.00 per client

-Parent/carer review meetings are at an additional cost

-Any cancellations need to be made by 8pm on the day before the scheduled session is due to commence, otherwise there will be a partial charge.

-All art materials are covered in session costs

-Lucy-Mary is available for therapy sessions in schools by arrangement (sometimes schools are able to partially or fully fund therapy sessions for students).

I’m ready to start therapy, what’s the first step?

The first step would be to have a phone conversation with the therapist to get to know each other a bit. It also gives the client a chance to talk about why they’re considering therapy, either for themselves or for a young person in their care.

If the therapist thinks they’re are a good fit they will talk you through the logistics of scheduling sessions. Sometimes there may be a different therapist that is more specialised in a particular area that you need. If this is the case, you might have the option to be referred on.

There are a couple of different options with scheduling sessions. 1. Set number – some families and schools for example, will have funding for a certain number of sessions. 2. Open ended – this can be helpful, as everyone is different and their therapy process may vary in length depending on their needs. If the therapy is for a young person and you’re going for this option, then it’s important to allow 3 or 4 sessions for a proper transition when it’s time to move on from therapy.

In both scenarios the therapist will meet with the family or carers (if the therapy is for a young person) every 5-6 weeks to review and discuss next steps, as well as offering short email or phone exchanges in between these meetings.

I’m ready to move on from therapy. What’s the best way to transition out?

Plenty of warning is really important for transitioning out of therapy. The relationship between the client and the therapist is a big part of the therapy process and ending this needs to be done with great care. It’s good to have 2 or 3 sessions to review the therapy journey and do a meaningful goodbye and closing.

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