Creative Arts Therapy and Therapeutic (Healing) Art. Is there a difference?

J. Nathan Corbitt

We are often asked what the difference is between creative arts therapy and the term we often use, therapeutic art.  Here is a response:

We do make a distinction between therapeutic art and creative arts (music, dance/movement, drama and visual) therapy.  We distinguish between creative arts therapy as an arts modality engaged as a treatment to a clinically diagnosed problem by a certified specialist; and the healing power of art-making and the importance of arts mentoring relationships.  We have a number of board certified creative arts therapists working with us as faculty in our Institute and in direct service in the shelters and transitional homes where we we provide direct service in Philadelphia.  Our co-founder, Dr. Nix-Early is a clinical psychologist and a board certified music therapist.  We would hold to the definition here:

When a request comes from the field, we will ask about the needs of the child or children.  We want to know what assessments may have been done regarding observable behavior.  Since we work with many social workers who are aware of the distinction, they often request a creative arts therapist.  In after-school and other programs we recognize the creative arts and their healing power in improving self-esteem and providing hope.  While art-making is therapeutic (healing–and maybe this would be a better word), its healing power, in our view, is most effective when used by a caring and mentoring artists who can “speak
blessings” into the life of a child, and use “art as metaphor” in teaching life lessons.  Based on an assessment of our classes in homeless shelters we have developed a model for teaching children through art-making experiences called the BuildaBridge Classroom.  We have found this model to be effective in many educational settings around the world.

In our basic training for hope–and we ask all artists to listen to this–we have a model for hope based on music therapy.  A model that can broadly be applied by the therapist, as well as the artist mentor. In the case of our projects planned in Haiti,  as we have also experienced in the informal settlements (slums) of Nairobi, Guatemala, Nicaragua, the streets of Cairo, and the shelters of Philadelphia trauma as a result of violence, sexual abuse and catastrophe is a major issue.  While we cannot have a creative arts therapist on every trip (though we would like to and have had on a number of these trips and in our ongoing programming in Philadelphia), we want our affiliate artists–and those who request our services to understand the difference between arts therapy and therapeutic art or the healing arts), as well as to be able to recognize when a professional creative arts therapist should be engaged.

Our plans for Haiti are more long-term and are planned to begin after the first responders have completed their work.  As requests for “arts relief” begin to take shape, we assess what level of work is needed.  In some cases, especially in dealing with acute cases of trauma, we would request only a creative art therapist.  In other cases, where creating a safe space for kids to play, create and learn is called for we would assemble a team who might assist a local school, medical clinic or other places where children congregate.


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