Art therapist: job description

Art therapists use art to help patients cope with emotional and mental health problems and allow them to express emotions and feelings.

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Art therapy roles don’t require a specific first degree course, but you will need an approved postgraduate qualification in order to practise.

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

Art therapy practitioners work with a wide range of patients who are affected by a variety of problems, including mental health problems, behavioural difficulties, learning disabilities and life-limiting conditions.

The therapy aims to channel patients’ energies into visual art, in order to help them to understand, express 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.

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
  • organising and carrying out one-on-one and group workshops
  • in group workshops, encouraging members of the group to relate to each other through their art
  • liaising with other professionals, including those working in medicine, healthcare and education, social services, and the prison and probation services
  • 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

Typical employers of art therapists

Many art therapists begin their career by working on a self-employed basis, using their network and speculative applications to find work. There may be opportunities to work for:

  • The NHS
  • Private health sector
  • Services for children, adolescents and older people
  • Social services
  • Local education authorities
  • The prison service
  • Charities
  • Some private organisations

The British association of art therapists (BAAT) surveys newly qualified members each year to get an idea of employment prospects; you can find the results on the BAAT website. You may also find vacancies here, or on the NHS jobs or NHS Scotland recruitment websites.

Qualifications and training required

Art therapists need a postgraduate diploma in art therapy or psychotherapy that is recognised by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). Course providers often require candidates to hold a first degree in an art-based subject, although you may still be accepted if your degree is less relevant but you have plenty of evidence to demonstrate a strong art background. The British Assocation of Art Therapists (BAAT) provides a list of recommended courses on their website. Study takes two to four years and must be followed by registration with the HCPC before official practice can start.

Experience of working directly with a vulnerable person and supporting their welfare, is required before training as an art therapist. 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.

Once qualified, art therapists must undertake continuing professional development 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 inspire trust and provide an open atmosphere that encourages learning and participation
  • A non-judgemental approach and ability to work with 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
  • Business skills for private practice

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