Art therapy is a collection of therapeutic approaches that involve the creative arts. Art therapy programs vary and may include aspects of drawing, painting, photography, sculpture, dancing, creative writing, and storytelling. Art creation is a means for patients to express and explore their emotions and experiences while in the hospital.
The benefits of art therapy are derived, at a basic level, through sensory stimulation (Lusebrink, 2004). Lusebrink explored the underlying processes involved in art expression and found that engaging in art therapy activates different brain regions. Art expression stimulates the brain’s tactile-haptic, visual sensory, and perceptual channels; processing then occurs through cognitive and verbal channels (Lusebrink, 2004). Various aspects of informational processing are also involved in this complex interplay, as well as spatial placement and symbolic memory (Lusebrink, 2004).
Art therapy can distract from pain and illness. Distraction is a powerful tool in the hospital setting and can be used to provide pain relief to patients (Adams, 1998). Ridenour (1998) reported that interactive art opportunities at San Diego Children’s Hospital helped pediatric patients to forget about their illness and normalize their hospital experience. The process of creating art can counter stress and provide positive distractions from pain, illness, and associated stressors.
Art therapy can reduce stress. Chapman et al., (2001) examined the effectiveness of art therapy in pediatric trauma patients. The Chapman Art Therapy Treatment Intervention (CATTI) was developed and implemented at San Francisco General Hospital as a brief, trauma resolution method for pediatric patients with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They found that, in comparison to patients receiving normal hospital care, children receiving art therapy treatment experienced a reduction in acute stress symptoms (Chapman et al, 2001).
Art therapy can provide coping skills. In a study of pediatric cancer patients, Favara-Scacco et al., (2001) assessed the effectiveness of an art therapy program designed to promote coping skills in leukemic children, who undergo painful and intrusive procedures on a regular basis. Favara-Scacco and colleagues developed the program in order to reduce anxiety, fear, and prolonged emotional distress in the leukemic patient population. They found that art therapy provided support for these children involved in invasive procedures (Favara-Scacco et al., 2001). Compared to a control group, patients in art therapy had a significant increase in positive behaviors and a significant decrease in anxiety levels . Specifically, these children exhibited less resistance to treatment and expressed a desire for more art therapy when undergoing subsequent procedures. Art therapy was found to be helpful for parents as well. After interacting with the art therapist and learning coping strategies, parents felt more confident in their ability to help their children deal with illnesses.
Art therapy can provide social benefits. Such programs that bring trained therapists, local artists, and/or friendly volunteers into the hospitals to draw, paint, and dance with patients increase social interaction and support for patients, who otherwise may feel isolated or frightened in the hospital (Ridenour, 1998). Such social encounters significantly improve the patients’ overall experiences with hospitalization.
Art therapy can improve patients’ overall health outcomes, treatment compliance, and quality of life. The State of the Field Report: Arts in Healthcare 2009 was compiled by a committee of experts to document what is known about art and art therapy in health settings. The report details the many benefits of art therapy in healthcare as evidenced by a variety of research studies. These benefits include physical, mental, and emotional gains in patient healing and recovery. Furthermore, recent data suggests that art therapy programs may result in shorter hospital stays, less need for medication, and fewer complications for patients. In addition to the direct association that these new findings have to patient health and well-being, the economic implications are substantial. Art therapy may reduce the considerable costs of illness and hospitalization for patients and their families.
Conclusion: Art therapy has many remarkable benefits, and such programs have an important role in pediatric health care.
Contributing Authors: Marley E Burns and Oren J Mechanic
Last Revised January 13, 2012.
Adams P. When healing is more than simply clowning around. JAMA. 1998;279(5):401.
Chapman L, Morabito D, Ladakakos C, Schreier H, Knudson MM. The effectiveness of art therapy interventions in reducing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms in pediatric trauma patients. Art Therapy. 2001;18(2):100-104.
Favara-Scacco C, Smirne G, Schilirò G, Di Cataldo A. Art therapy as support for children with leukemia during painful procedures. Medical and Pediatric Oncology. 2001;36:474-480.
Lusebrink VB. Art therapy and the brain: an attempt to understand the underlying processes of art expression in therapy. Art Therapy. 2004;21(3):125-135.
Ridenour A. Creativity and the arts in health care settings. JAMA. 1998;279(5):399-400.
State of the Field Committee. State of the Field Report: Arts in Healthcare 2009. Washington, DC: Society for the Arts in Healthcare. 2009.