Art therapist: job description

Art therapist: job description

Art therapists use art to help patients surpass psychological difficulties and allow them to express emotions and feelings.
Art therapy roles don’t require a specific degree course, but you will need an approved masters qualification (or equivalent) in order to practise.

What does an art therapist do? Typical employers | Qualifications and training | Key skills

Art therapy aims to help patients overcome their emotional and mental difficulties by engaging with, and expressing themselves through, the artistic process.

Practitioners work with a wide range of patients who suffer a variety of problems including clinical or bipolar depression, phobias, anxiety and behavioural disorders.

The therapy aims to channel patients’ energies into painting, sculpture and other forms of expression (including theatre and dance) and help them to understand and address their inner conflicts.

Art therapists play an active part in the sessions; guiding patients through the creative process and encouraging them to engage with their feelings and explore the thought processes behind them.

The works of art that are produced can have an enlightening or cathartic effect for the patient and help them recover from or come to terms with their illness. Typical activities in the role include:

  • meeting patients or clients and arranging activities and sessions
  • planning and facilitating activities, and maintaining the workshop and equipment
  • listening to patients or clients and advising them on suitable activities
  • helping patients or clients to see the systems and practices at their disposal to help them overcome their problems
  • organising and carrying out one-on-one and group workshops
  • liaising with other mental health professionals and doctors
  • attending seminars, workshops and conferences to discuss treatment methods and share ideas and experience
  • encouraging patients or clients to explore their art and think about it means to them
  • referring patients or clients to other therapists and health professionals

Conditions of work, along with the job title, will depend on the employer. For example 'art tutors' in prisons are likely to face different work scenarios and environments than 'group workers' within the social services.

Hours will typically be 9.00 am to 5.00 pm but therapists must be prepared to put in extra time and be flexible towards patient needs.

Vacancies are advertised through the NHS and on the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT) website. Salaries will largely depend on your employer but you can expect higher salaries in the private sector.

Typical employers of art therapists

  • The National Health Service
  • Private health sector
  • Child, adolescent, adult and old aged services
  • Social services
  • Local education authorities
  • The prison service
  • Charities
  • Some private organisations

Qualifications and training required

Art therapists need a postgraduate diploma in art therapy or psychotherapy that is recognised by the Health Professions Council. Course providers often require candidates to hold degrees in art-based subjects, although relevant qualifications such as nursing, teaching or social work may be accepted.The BAAT provides a list of recommended courses on their website (see the link below). Study takes two years full time, or three years part time, and must be followed by registration with the HPC before official practice can start.

Specific training is sometimes provided by employers. For example, it is possible to get experience in special education or in prisons. However it can be difficult to gain direct experience before qualification due to the sensitive nature of the work. Try to get as much experience as possible by volunteering and work shadowing in related environments such as schools, hospitals, prisons and care centres. Placements can be gained by approaching employers directly, volunteering or asking to shadow staff members.

Therapists are subject to police checks during training and are also required to undergo personal therapy sessions.

Once qualified art therapists must undertake continuing professional development, including workshops, training and checks from professional bodies to make sure their professional knowledge and skills are up to date.

Key skills for art therapists

  • Excellent artistic abilities, creativity, imagination and enthusiasm
  • Maturity, patience and a calm, respectful manner
  • Ability to provide a trusting, open, kindhearted atmosphere that encourages learning and participation
  • A strong empathy with and commitment to helping people from all walks of life
  • Ability to deal with difficult, perhaps painful and embarrassing situations
  • Excellent interpersonal, communication and listening skills
  • A strong knowledge and understanding of the theory and practice of psychotherapy and the role art can play in treatment