What It Is Like to Be an Art Therapist

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What it's Like to be an Art Therapist

I think a lot of people might be curious about what it's really like to be an art therapist. Yes, you can search some stats and facts about art therapist career (e.g., pay, employment sites, etc) but it's really different to actually hear from an art therapist what their day-to-day experience is like.

The problem is that not everyone can see and talk to an art therapist because there might not be art therapists around them in their city or town, and they don't know anyone who are art therapists.

So today I'm sharing with you what it's like to be an art therapist, from my own personal point of view. Of course, every art therapist has a different, subjective view on their work so make sure to keep that in mind.

Daily life/ schedule 

Today, my daily life or schedule is a little unusual for an art therapist. This is because I do freelance work, see coaching/consulting clients on my own, and do online content creation (YouTube, podcast, etc). Each day of the week, I focus on one or two things, e.g., video editing, or seeing clients.

If I reflect back on my work as a full-time or part-time employed art therapist, my day would consist of:

  • checking in with my clients

  • running group (verbal) therapy

  • running group art therapy

  • planning sessions

  • having sessions with clients individually for art therapy

  • setting up and/or cleaning up before and after session

  • managing and ordering new art supplies (not a daily task)

  • writing notes and doing documentation of sessions held

  • participating in meetings

All these daily tasks vary widely depending on what kind of place you work at. Maybe you work at a school, a nursing home, or a correctional facility... each place will have different duties and requirements.

Questions asked by people

As an art therapist, I get asked a lot of questions by people and this has become a part of my experience of being in this career field.

Art therapy is a relatively new and young field that lots of people don't know about - even those who are "allied professionals" like social workers, therapists, and counselors are not familiar with this field.

So I would say, answering questions might become a part of your role as an art therapist. Yes, it may get annoying or irritating to get the same questions again and again, but it's also a chance to advocate for art therapy field and educate the public about the value of what you do.

Some questions I often get are: "how do you become an art therapist?" "what do you do with your clients?" "can you tell something about me if you look at my artwork" "can you diagnose/assess me" "can you tell me an art therapy idea I can do" ? etc.

Also, you might get a lot of assumptions and myths from curious folks. People might assume you are an art teacher, that you don't know about mental health (or trained in it), that coloring books are art therapy, and they don't know that you have a reason for the choice of specific materials and methods you introduce to clients, etc.

Earning a living 

In terms of earning a living, it might not be as easy as you would've thought, especially in the beginning.

Right after you graduate, you are not licensed or certified, so the choice of jobs out there is limited. It's better when you graduate from a CAAHEP-accredited master's program, which will make you qualify for jobs like counseling or social work.

The thing is, these jobs do not pay that well, and the benefits are not that great either. In the beginning few years, you may have a low paying full time job, which could help you earn a living, or you may be in part-time jobs to make ends meet.

There's also a high chance that you may not be doing art therapy work. Perhaps you're thinking to yourself, “but I graduated with an art therapy degree and I'm here to become an art therapist...”

Nevertheless, entry-level purely art therapist jobs are hard to come by so you may likely be in roles like case manager, teacher, counselor, and recreation therapist. These can help you earn a living, though it may not be the ideal situation for new art therapists.

Working with clients

So you may also be wondering how is it like working with clients. That is the big question.

Working with clients can be challenging but also fun and rewarding. You'll most likely be working with clients who have mental illnesses or physical illnesses and your cases can be quite complex, depending on the specific type of organization/place you’re working at.

You may face vicarious trauma, listening to the traumatic experiences of a client, or you may face clients who become resistant or challenging to work with because of their history of turbulent relationships. But that is what comes with doing therapy work.

The flip side is that it can become truly rewarding and satisfying to see clients and their process. With art therapy, you can witness so much change and positive strengths that your clients inherently have.

It's amazing to witness the power of creative expression and to be able to hold that safe space for people.

Isolation/supervision 

One thing that can often happen if you're working as an art therapist is that you may feel isolated.

Art therapists usually work solo, and there's often just one art therapist in the whole organization/workplace.

This may lead to the art therapist feeling lonely, not understood, or just simply disconnected with others. It can easily lead to burn out.

It's important for art therapists to connect with other art therapists and also receive supervision outside of their workplace especially if they're quite new in this career. You become more confident, feel supported, and become more committed in your work when you are connected and supported by other art therapists.

As you can tell from this post, there are ups and downs in working as an art therapist. It's hard to say whether this is generally a "good" job or a "bad" job. The only thing we can do is to figure out whether this is a fitting job or an unfitting job for each person.

All jobs and careers come with downsides and upsides. The important thing to think about is whether the positives of this career fit well with you and your desires and whether you can handle the downsides.

This is what I talk about with people who sign up for my 1:1 email career consulting. We dive in deep about what is important to you, what's involved in becoming an art therapist, whether it's worth it or not, and what to do to do become certified. I share my professional and personal insights, experiences, and suggestions to guide you into a clear career path. If you are interested in learning more, see here.

Hope you enjoyed learning about what it’s like to be an art therapist. Thank you and I hope to catch you next time!

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