Creative and Expressive Arts Therapies: Selecting Unique Arts-Based Counselling Options

Posted by: CC PA on October 31, 2011 3:50 pm

One in every five Canadians will face a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Despite the commonality of mental health and mental illness concerns, many Canadians have never consulted a certified counsellor.  They have formed their views about counselling and therapy on what they may have seen in movies or read in fiction. The media tend to portray therapy as a verbal exchange between a counsellor and a client.  It is rare that the public is exposed to accurate images of therapy. Typically, the erroneous classical portrayal of a client lying on a couch, with the therapist seated behind scribbling notes is the prevailing image.

Each person moves through the world and interacts with it in different ways and. has developed unique ways of managing emotions in everyday life. Fortunately, today’s field of counselling recognizes this individuality and has broadened its modalities to include a variety of therapeutic approaches to address diverse needs and ways of expressing difficulties.

People have historically used the arts to express themselves and in turn have discovered the healing potential of art-making. Some certified counsellors use the arts in their oral-based practice, for example, by integrating visual art, writing or role-play. Other certified counsellors have specialized training in the intentional therapeutic use of arts-based modalities such as art therapy, drama therapy, music therapy, dance/movement therapy, sandplay therapy, poetry therapy and expressive arts therapies.

“These therapies use arts modalities and creative processes during intentional intervention in therapeutic, rehabilitative, community, or educational settings to foster health, communication, and expression; promote the integration of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social functioning; enhance self-awareness; and facilitate change,” according to the National Coalition of Creative Arts Therapies Association. Arts-based counselling can be beneficial for any age, ability level, and requires no artistic skill or experience.  Arts-based counselling may be to individuals experiencing a variety of concerns related to developmental disabilities, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, trauma, bereavement, difficulty expressing emotions, relationship difficulties, a desire to enhance confidence and social skills, or a desire to achieve personal growth.

So why would someone choose arts-based counselling?  Some individuals who otherwise wouldn’t consider therapy might find creative therapies a less intrusive option because there is an inherent pleasure in engaging in the arts, allowing the gradual expression of thoughts and emotions through the safety that can be provided in an art image, song lyrics, or an imaginative story.  Within the therapeutic relationship, together, the therapist and client explore the symbolism and meaning of what the client has expressed and interpret within the art-making process.

What makes arts-based counselling so helpful? Through the expression of the arts within a therapeutic context, the counsellor and client have the opportunity to explore what is created by the client over a period of time, allowing the individual to fully express issues, emotions, and conflicts that he or she wouldn’t ordinarily be comfortable verbalizing.

If you or someone you know is thinking about connecting with a counsellor or psychotherapist that uses the arts in their practice, keep in mind some of following creative arts approaches:

  1. Art Therapy: This form of counselling combines the creative process with counselling and psychotherapy theory and research, working towards the goal of achieving self-awareness and personal growth in one’s life.  The client may utilize materials such as paints, pencil crayons, pastels, clay, fabric, or magazine clippings.  Art therapists may encourage their clients to explore non-verbal symbols, metaphors, and over-arching patterns in the artwork and to identify connections with the client’s thoughts and emotions.  This process is facilitated in a safe and non-intrusive manner in which the client can feel in- control to share as little or as much as he or she wishes.
  2. Dance Movement Therapy: According to the American Dance Therapy Association, the goal of Dance Movement Therapy is the “psychotherapeutic use of movement to promote emotional, cognitive, physical, and social integration of individuals.” The client uses everyday movements, improvised dance and natural rhythms to communicate personal feelings in a non-verbal form. Therapists who use dance and movement are trained to respond to both verbal and non-verbal communication of the client, in order to encourage expression through the movement. Through dance, trust is built within the therapeutic relationship and over time people can begin to explore in more depth the link between their movements or body awareness and the emotions they experience. Therapists support clients to contain difficult feelings through movement and to explore the symbolism of their gestures in order to further healing, nurture personal insight and development.
  3. Music Therapy: Music Therapy explores the process of music making in a non-threatening and constructive manner within a therapeutic relationship to promote positive change in the client.  This specialized intervention can be experienced as interactive (making music) or receptive (listening to music).  Interactive Music Therapy may include instrument play or song writing and can be used to manage depression, to increase mobility, and to promote stimulation.  Receptive Music Therapy can be used to manage issues such as physical pain, anxiety, and sleep disorders.  By combining the use of both interactive and receptive approaches, Music Therapy can effectively treat the client in a holistic manner.
  4. Drama Therapy:  The aims of drama therapy are to provide clients with a safe distance, through dramatic processes, to explore their emotions and relationships in order to produce positive changes.  A drama therapist assesses a client’s needs and then considers dramatic tools depending on skill, ability levels, interests and therapeutic goals.  For example, interventions can range from individual sessions exploring trauma through identification with story characters to group sessions using improvisation to strengthen and negotiate life roles.  Sessions progress through five stages:  warm-up, focusing, main activity, closure and de-roling and completion.   Completion provides an opportunity for clients to integrate and reflect on the significance of the dramatic material encountered during the main activity.
  5. Sandplay/Sandtray Therapy. Practitioners of this therapeutic modality use spontaneous and imaginative play in trays of sand. Clients sculpt wet and dry sand and use miniature figurines or objects to create three-dimensional scenes or designs that express their inner feelings.   Depending on the theoretical orientation of the therapist, the client is encouraged to engage in the process and image creation in different ways. Sandplay Therapy, comes from a Jungian non-directive approach where the image creation process is permitted to be the healing act in itself, whereas some counsellors use the Sandtray process and image making to actively engage client material in a therapeutic discussion.

If you or someone you care about could benefit from any of the above therapeutic approaches, connect with a certified counsellor in your area by visiting

If you would like to know more information about the different Creative Arts Therapies, follow the links from the Creative Arts in Counselling Chapter page.

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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