What is Art Therapy?

According to the American Art Therapy Association, art therapy is a type of therapy that utilizes art-making in a therapeutic environment “to improve cognitive and sensorimotor functions, foster self-esteem and self-awareness, cultivate emotional resilience, promote insight, enhance social skills, reduce and resolve conflicts and distress, and advance societal and ecological change.”1 Forms of art-making used in art therapy include, but are not limited to, drawing, painting, sculpture, and collage making. Art therapists hold a Master’s degree or higher, and completion of 1,000 hours of supervised postgraduate work is required for registration and board certification from the Art Therapy Credentials Board.2

Art therapy allows participants to process emotions and engage in self-expression and communication outside of traditional verbal communication.1–3 Art therapy can also help improve physical and psychological stress via strengthening the connection between the mind and body.3

Art therapy can be used in a variety of contexts. This article will center on the impact of art therapy on mental health and quality of life outcomes in adults.

Research points to art therapy playing a positive role in mental health outcomes among various populations. One randomized controlled trial (RCT) examined the effects of art therapy on a small sample of female patients in the Netherlands aged 18 to 65 years with social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and/or panic disorder.4 Participants in the intervention group underwent 10 to 12 art therapy sessions over three months, while those the control group were on a waiting list for those three months, then underwent art therapy for three months. Examples of art exercises included drawing, painting, and clay modeling. Post-treatment, the intervention group experienced a decrease in anxiety symptom severity, whereas the control group did not. Furthermore, participants in the intervention group showed improved emotion regulation and quality of life. At three-month follow-up, significant improvements from baseline in anxiety, emotion regulation, and quality of life were maintained in the intervention group. Following three months of art therapy, the control group also experienced significantly reduced anxiety and improved emotion regulation, but significant improvements in quality of life were not observed.4

In another RCT, researchers assessed the impact of manual-based phenomenological art therapy in conjunction with treatment as usual (TAU) six months following the art therapy intervention in patients with moderate-to-severe depression in Sweden.5 This study was a follow-up of a previous trial, which showed that patients who received manual-based phenomenological art therapy (10 once-weekly sessions) with TAU experienced significant reductions in depression from baseline to three months post-treatment, compared to those who received TAU alone. Improvements in depression were maintained at six-month follow-up among those who received art therapy. Patients who received TAU only experienced significantly reduced depression from Month 3 to Month 6. Additionally, patients in the intervention group had reduced sick leave and suicidal ideation from baseline to Month 6. Self-esteem improved significantly from baseline to Month 6 in both groups. These findings indicate that implementation of art therapy alongside TAU led to a swifter improvement among patients with moderate-to-severe depression, with similar long-term outcomes compared to TAU.5 Research on individuals with psychiatric symptoms and women with depression also suggests that art therapy can help improve depressive symptoms; however, neither of these studies included control groups without therapy, so the effectiveness of art therapy cannot be fully assessed.6

Art therapy has been shown to have a positive impact on patients with cancer as well.6,7 One review article found that patients with cancer (most commonly breast cancer) who participated in art therapy experienced improvements in areas such as symptom perception, anxiety, depression, coping, and quality of life.6 In another review article,7 the authors found that two of four studies that measured anxiety reported that patients who participated in art therapy experienced significant decreases in anxiety; one study demonstrated a significant change in anxiety scores the intervention group from baseline to post-art therapy, but no significant differences between the intervention and control groups, whereas the second study reported significantly improved anxiety scores in the intervention group, compared to the control group. Of three studies that measured depression, two reported significant improvements among individuals who participated in art therapy, compared to controls. Of six studies that measured quality of life, four reported positive outcomes associated with art therapy. Significant improvements in quality of life, as well as related areas, such as wellbeing, psychological symptoms, and physical health/symptoms, were observed in the various studies.7

Several studies have indicated that art therapy can benefit patients with stroke. A study conducted in Jordan found that patients with stroke, most of whom had moderate depression (68.2%), moderate anxiety (50.6%), or severe stress (58.5%), showed significant reductions in depression, anxiety, and stress following four art therapy sessions over two weeks.3 In a study based in South Korea, implementation of a color therapy program resulted in significant increases in Purpose in Life (PIL) scores among patients with stroke and their caregivers, compared to controls. Improvements in PIL subcategories (Meaning in Life, Life Value Selection, and Aim of Life) all significantly increased as well.8 Although more studies in this patient population must be conducted to before any definitive statements on the impact of art therapy can be made.

Research focusing on older adults also suggests that art therapy can have positive effects on various aspects of life. Studies have indicated that art therapy might reduce depressive symptoms in older adults with depression,6 those living in long-term care settings,9 and healthy older adults who live independently.10 A study on healthy Korean American older adults showed that four weeks of art therapy led to decreased anxiety and higher self-esteem.6 A review on older adults in long-term care settings reported that art therapy could promote self-esteem, communication, engagement and socialization, critical thinking, and self-expression among participants.9 

It is important to note that art therapy is not effective in the context of all mental health conditions (e.g., schizophrenia6,11). However, art therapy can potentially improve the mental health and quality of life of many adults. 


  1. American Art Therapy Association. About art therapy. Updated 7 Feb 2024. https://arttherapy.org/about-art-therapy/. Accessed 24 Apr 2024.
  2. Cleveland Clinic. What is art therapy? 23 Mar 2021. https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-art-therapy. Accessed 24 Apr 2024.
  3. Alwledat K, Al-Amer R, Ali AM, et al. Creative art therapy for improving depression, anxiety, and stress in patients with stroke: a quasi-interventional study. SAGE Open Nurs. 2023;9:23779608231160473. 
  4. Abbing A, Baars EW, de Sonneville L, et al. The effectiveness of art therapy for anxiety in adult women: a randomized controlled trial. Front Psychol. 2019;10:1203. 
  5. Blomdahl C, Guregård S, Rusner M, Wijk H. Recovery from depression—a 6-month follow-up of a randomized controlled study of manual-based phenomenological art therapy for persons with depression. Art Therapy. 2022;39(1):13–23.
  6. Regev D, Cohen-Yatziv L. Effectiveness of art therapy with adult clients in 2018-what progress has been made? Front Psychol. 2018;9:1531.
  7. Bosman JT, Bood ZM, Scherer-Rath M, et al. The effects of art therapy on anxiety, depression, and quality of life in adults with cancer: a systematic literature review. Support Care Cancer. 2021;29(5):2289–2298. 
  8. Kim MK, Kang SD. Effects of art therapy using color on purpose in life in patients with stroke and their caregivers. Yonsei Med J. 2013;54(1):15–20. 
  9. Durocher E, Njelesani J, Crosby E. Art activities in long-term care: a scoping review. Can J Occup Ther. 2022;89(1):36–43. 
  10. Galassi F, Merizzi A, D’Amen B, Santini S. Creativity and art therapies to promote healthy aging: a scoping review. Front Psychol. 2022 Sep 26;13:906191. 
  11. Crawford MJ, Killaspy H, Barnes TR, et al. Group art therapy as an adjunctive treatment for people with schizophrenia: multicentre pragmatic randomised trial. BMJ. 2012;344:e846. 

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