LMU’s Art Therapy Program Highlighted in Teaching Artists Guild Publication

CFA’s Department of Marital and Family Therapy was recently profiled by the publication TAG Quarterly, which covered the field of art therapy and our renowned program. TAG Quarterly is published by the Teaching Artists Guild, an organization committed to the professionalization and visibility of artists who teach. Reprinted here with permission.

Teaching artists and art educators treasure moments when they recognize deeply felt emotions in the work of their students. The practice of art therapists expands upon these relationships. A conversation with Einat Menzl, PhD., Assistant Professor at the Marital Family and Art Therapy graduate program at Loyola Marymount University, clarifies the work and profession of art therapy. Through her professional experience, Dr. Menzl helps us to see the connection between art making and the psychotherapy process. This interview been condensed and edited for clarity.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is a mental health profession in which clients, facilitated by the art therapist, use art media, the creative process, and the resulting artwork to explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem. A goal in art therapy is to improve or restore a client’s functioning and his or her sense of personal well-being. The basic premise is that you’re using the art in all of its facets, so the making itself and then the reflective process around the project that’s created to increase one’s well-being. Information can be found at the American Art Therapy website at https://arttherapy.org/.

Art therapy practice requires knowledge of visual art (drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms) and the creative process, as well as of human development, psychological, and counseling theories and techniques.

Here, we’re only talking about art therapy. Of course, there’s also expressive therapy, what we’ve also come to know as multimodal, where people use not only the classic arts. When people talk about art therapy, for the most part, they speak about the use of classic arts like drawing, painting, sculpture, and other art forms of that nature. Different than music therapy, drama therapy, poetry therapy, and dance therapy. All of these do exist and they’re either from their own profession or for people who kind of dabble in all of them, it’s typically called a multimodal or expressive therapy.

Today art therapy is widely practiced in a wide variety of settings including hospitals, psychiatric and rehabilitation facilities, wellness centers, forensic institutions, schools, crisis centers, senior communities, private practice, and other clinical and community settings. During individual and/ or group sessions art therapists elicit their clients’ inherent capacity for art making to enhance their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Research supports the use of art therapy within a professional relationship for the therapeutic benefits gained through artistic self-expression and reflection for individuals who experience illness, trauma, and mental health problems and those seeking personal growth.

What kinds of experiences have you had as an art therapist?

My experiences run the gamut. I’ve worked in psychiatric hospitals with teens and adults in different places. I’m originally from Israel and I started in Israel, and then here in Los Angeles with adults in psychiatric hospitals. I got my PhD. at Florida State University in Tallahassee and worked with all ages in their psychiatric facilities. I worked in an elementary school in a beautiful program called Share and Care, part of the psychological trauma center at Cedars-Sinai Los Angeles. It provides basically art therapy for people in elementary school, mostly in groups but also some families and some individuals. And then I worked at an early intervention center with kids who were three to five-years-old, and that’s a different kind of specialty, just by the type of population as far as their needs and capacities. You need to work very directly with parents, as well, of course. I worked shortly in a program at an Alzheimer’s clinic, and in an adult day center where I served not only elderly adults or but also other middle-aged people who had difficult medical issues, often brain injuries or other forms of developmental trauma. I now have a small private practice where I see a lot of couples as I’m interested in couples work, though I do still see individuals, and a some families and children too. So really I work with a wide variety of clients.

Are there opportunities to experience art therapy practice prior to committing to a program such as the one at LMU?

I would suggest that anybody who’s interested in it to try to experience an art therapy session themselves. That would make a big difference in understanding what it does and doesn’t do. Most schools that have an art therapy program would have some workshops that are open to the community or open houses where you could come and learn more about art therapy.

There are opportunities– organizations, some on a national level, that offer therapeutic use of art experiences that are not art therapy but are close to art therapy. For example there is an initiative called Windows Between Worlds that serves families who have dealt with domestic violence, and they have a very specific art curriculum. Also in most medical settings, especially children’s hospitals, there are volunteers who do bedside art making or special art projects. In Los Angeles, we have the Children’s Hospital Los Angeles that has both an artist program, where general volunteers from the community and artists come in and provide artistic experiences, and then also have art therapists who go in and do art therapy sessions. Again, these are different services but you’re serving similar populations, but the focus is still on healing.

What is often required to enter your art therapy program? For example, do most of your students have a psychology or art background? What do you look for in potential students?

Any program that’s approved by the American Association of Art Therapy (AATA), has to have prerequisites both from psychology and the arts. That’s not an option, they have to have some of both. The exact numbers are online. About the credential, generally I would say they need a certain amount of studio art, actually hands-on experience with art. Most programs, like ours at LMU, would ask for a portfolio, as well. We would actually need to see evidence that they’re comfortable with art and a plethora of different materials and medias because as an art therapist, it’s not so much about how wonderful you are as an artist, but rather are you able to provide with ease a diversity of media and art experiences for people who come to see you. You have to have a flexibility between media and forms and an understanding of the materials, an understanding of what different art experiences provide.

We teach the psychopathology and we teach how to treat those, but you have to have at least a basic understanding of what psychology is, and what is the normal range, and when we talk about abnormal psychology what are we talking about, and when we talk about the difference between developmental stages there has to be some understanding. And, of course, we build off of those.

We try to not only look at academic skills, which are important, but you have to have writing skills. In California, health insurance is so important here, as it is in other places. You need to document in writing what’s happening, because it becomes part of your client’s file and the way for you to advocate for that client, whether it be with others in the treatment team, or with a psychiatrist, or with a nurse, or with their parents, or with whoever. A lot of that is happening through writing. Also, at LMU we also ask for an autobiography, looking for them to write a bit about themselves. The intention here is no right or wrong but really to look at the ability to make connections, to have insights, to enable to report ecological mindfulness with communities about how you see events in your life, how you see yourself in terms of identity. We do really try to look at the whole person.

Does art therapy work best with any particular population, such as children?

Art therapy is for everybody because we all have a capacity and a need to store and process information in visual form and also in sensory and kinesthetic form too. Many of us are socialized to not see ourselves as professional artists and, typically in elementary or between elementary and middle school, most of us were told, “Oh, you know what, you’re not going to be an artist anymore, so maybe choose something else.” There’s a specialization that’s happening, and very few continue to pursue art as a way of being, but it’s not that that capacity is gone. In art therapy, that potential is there, but many more people have already histories of hesitations and rejection. They feel like they haven’t been able to be good artists. With adults, you have to really work through that.

We keep propagating that myth by talking about how kids do really well in art therapy, and how people who have autism are especially good with art which is true and untrue. And there are certain issues where information is typically stored in visual form. People who endure trauma for example. We tend to store traumatic images in our brain, and as well as smells and sounds, much more so than verbal information and cognitive information because it’s linked to our survival. When you’re in a car accident, what you’d remember is that sound and the look of hitting the other car, and maybe the smell that comes after. These are the ways that our body intuitively marks things and are connected very directly to the areas in our body that respond the quickest. Our brainstem and amygdala. It takes up much more time to process things cognitively in our frontal cortex and so forth. So there are certain issues that I would say really where art therapy is probably better than verbal therapy and trauma treatment would be one of them. Sometimes when kids have a hard time— or adults have a hard time verbalizing what it is that they’re experiencing, art can be very useful.

The beautiful thing about art therapy is that unlike other mental health professions where predominately you see clients by labels, what you really see in the room is the person’s creativity. What I get to know about them is through the lens of, “Oh, here’s another client that suffers from schizophrenia, rather, here’s another client who really loves the color red or here’s another client who does really well with more structured material and has a hard time with uncontrollable media.” You get to know people in a different way, in a way that kind of defies some of those very painful labels and sees through the challenges straight into the strengths. Straight into the reflective piece and the emotional piece and the personal piece. You are able to really see directly how the personal pieces meets what society sees and doesn’t see.

What do you think the future holds for art therapy?

Our profession has certainly has gotten a lot of validation, and mental health in general, seems to still be growing despite a lot of back and forth in our medical and mental health systems. It’s certainly here to stay and it is growing in its visibility and impact. You can really see evidence of that in some of the work we do with veterans. That’s become very well published recently and our association grows every year. Around the world, similar trends unite, for example I also teach classes in Barcelona, Spain. In all of these places, art therapy is growing in different ways, but it’s certainly growing and is a viable mental health profession.

As we get more into this new century, a lot is going to be different in how we see services and provide services in general. I think there’s some benefits and some challenges to how accessible potential sessions online are. Of course, there’s an allure in it, but I think there’s also a loss in not actually seeing someone face-to-face. However I would imagine we’ll see more of that just because it’s here. Certainly, the younger generation is very comfortable with digital media and more therapists using Skype or other video programs to provide sessions too. I think that’s going to happen more because you do have a broader access to clients that cannot come to your office physically.

Final thoughts?

The last thing I will say about the art therapy as a field, which is also I guess an indication of its vitality, is that there are a lot of states in the US where there’s a push towards titled protection for art therapy so people can’t just say they’re doing art therapy if they’re not actually art therapists. Which is not the case yet in California. But hopefully, we’ll move to that end.

Reprinted here with permission. Link to the digital copy of the magazine: https://teachingartistsguild.org/tag-quarterly-2/