Published on Thursday 10 January 2019

Can art be therapeutic, offering the possibility of changing the manner in which we relate to our experiences and their impact on our present life and relationships?

‘I decided to have a go.  I shut off my head and just went with how I felt … I did not know what I would draw, but I found myself drawing a door… After the door, I drew a tiny figure (me) and a large figure (the father). I noticed that I had drawn his hands very large and claw-like. I felt physically sick but carried on drawing. I began to hurt from the hands and scribbled them out very firmly. I actually felt the hands doing things to me that I hate. At the top of the paper, I drew two large figures of almost equal size.  I was very, very careful to get them the same size. It was to represent me and him, and the equality I feel I am now looking for.’  (McClelland, Ann and Pat, 1993, p.119)

This is an excerpt from Pat’s published reflection on her experience with art therapist Sheila McClelland. Through art therapy and within the therapeutic relationship with a trained art therapist, Pat was able to connect with, revisit and process less conscious traumatic memories. Whilst this can be a potentially cathartic experience, her engagment with art also allowed her to experience a degree of control which seems to have been absent when she was a child. Pat could experiment with and communicate how she desired to be within her present relationship.

Within the creative arts therapies, artistic expression functions as a bridging, transitional space between awareness and experience, conscious and unconscious spaces, me and you. Artistic expression offers the possibility of changing the manner in which we relate to our experiences and hence their impact on our present life and relationships. Moreover, the use of the artistic medium allows us to process past experiences in a distanced manner. This may contribute to a sense of safety and control.

The creative arts therapies include dramatherapy, music therapy, dance movement therapy and art therapy. The Creative Arts Therapies Society in Malta ( defines the arts therapies as ‘psychotherapeutic practices in which the creative arts and the therapeutic relationship (between client and therapist) are central to a process of awareness, development, transformation and healing.’ Artistic expression may take various forms, such as improvised painting, role play, story work, play, musical exchanges between therapist and client or movement pieces witnessed by supportive others within group therapy.

Arts therapists need to be qualified at a Masters level and all local practitioners were trained at European institutions. Though no local training is available, arts therapists can apply for state registration under the 2018 Psychotherapy Profession Act.

Some local applications of creative arts therapies include work with persons facing the challenges of eating disorders, dramatherapy with the elderly population, therapeutic work with children living in out of home care, work with adults seeking self-development and dealing with loss and work with children facing learning difficulties. Recently dramatherapy has also been used to offer a voice to children who received inpatient psychiatric treatment, especially in terms of sensitising professionals to their needs.