Quick Take: Your Coloring Book is Not Your Therapist

“Art is a very powerful, symbolic language that expresses those internal life experiences for which we have no words. A trained art therapist helps people create, express, and understand their own symbolic language which can be both surprising and enlightening.” — Nancy Gerber, PhD, the director of the PhD program in creative arts therapies at the College of Nursing and Health Professions.

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An image created by a middle-aged woman experiencing depression and other health issues. This image of a boat navigating unending waves in a storm displayed how she felt about her situation. Courtesy of Michele Rattigan.

Recently, there’s been an uptick in coloring books marketed as “art therapy.” The truth is, though, shading in lines alone with a Crayola really isn’t therapy.

It may feel good or clear your head from the stress of the day, but simply using a coloring book for art therapy is missing one irreplaceable thing: a therapist.

“A lot of people think of art therapy as just offering art materials,” said Michele Rattigan, assistant clinical professor of creative arts therapies in Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions. “But that’s not what it is. It’s based on the relationship with the art materials and a therapist.”

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Example of a coloring book carrying an “art therapy” label. Courtesy of Katie Dooley.

Art therapy is like all other forms of therapy, Gerber said: it’s designed to bring about change. That change is psychosocial and, in art therapy, is done through pictorially and emotionally re-constructing how a person sees himself or herself in the world. Change could also constitute an increase in self-reflection and understanding that creates new options and outlooks for a person.

As such, temporarily relieving stress or anxiety doesn’t qualify as change.

“The art is the agent of change,” Rattigan explained. “The images we ask them to create are very individualized because we want them to work with an issue that is very personal for them.”

For that reason, art therapy isn’t one-size-fits-all. Although there are some prompts that start the same, they branch and diverge with each person.

“We use metaphor a lot,” Gerber said. “People draw a metaphorical story and suddenly realize that they’re telling their own story.”

Work done by a teenager struggling with depression and anger. It was created after she became frustrated and destroyed an image she was working and, instead of throwing it away, created a new image. Rattigan said it “gave her a sense of hope that giving up didn’t always have to be an option.” Courtesy of Michele Rattigan.

Education is key for proper art therapy. A concerning trend that Gerber and Rattigan have noticed is therapists trying to bring art therapy into their repertoire without training in it. Such a situation could produce unintended damage if memories or feelings are brought up through the art and mishandled or analyzed incorrectly.

“If I have a friend who has a headache and I give them an Ibuprofin, I’m not practicing medicine,” Rattigan said. “I think people need to realize it’s not just about introducing art materials into a session.”

Drexel’s College of Nursing and Health Professions offers a master’s in art therapy and counseling. More info can be found here. Additionally, the college offers a PhD in creative arts therapies. Information for that can be found here.

Any members of the media interested in talking to Gerber or Rattigan can contact Frank Otto at 215.571.4244 or at fmo26@drexel.edu.

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