How Effective is Art Therapy in Drug Addiction Treatment?

Medically Reviewed

Art therapy is a form of integrated mental health support that uses creative and nonverbal expression to boost self-esteem, improve social skills, increase cognitive and sensory functions, and promote self-awareness, the American Art Therapy Association (AATA) publishes.

Art therapy is often included in drug addiction treatment as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) technique. The National Academy of Sciences classifies art therapy as an accepted part of CAM in the United States. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) publishes that close to 40 percent of Americans are using some form of CAM to enhance their overall quality of life in some way.

CAM techniques are becoming more and more widely accepted as methods of treatment for a variety of disorders and ailments. These CAM techniques are rarely used on their own. Instead, they are often part of an integrated care plan that also uses traditional treatment methods to aid overall health and wellness.

Art therapy is a form of creative expression using many methods as outlets. The Health Technology Assessment reports on several studies showing that art therapy provided significant improvement in several mental health arenas, including depression, trauma, an inability to cope, low self-esteem, anxiety, poor quality of life, distress, and low moods — all of which can be products or components of drug addiction and withdrawal. Art therapy can be a highly effective tool when used along with traditional therapy and other methods during treatment for drug addiction.

Art Therapy Explained

Art therapy can provide a different outlook on traditional therapy. Art therapy is nonverbal while traditional therapy involves talking through issues to resolve them. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which is commonly used during addiction treatment, seeks to help individuals understand the root cause of their behaviors by exploring thought patterns and attempting to modify them as needed. Art therapy is different in that it is not as conscious. Instead, it taps into the subconscious mind to help bring forth thoughts and emotions that may be buried. The goal is to surface and verbalize them, the Australian Psychological Society (APS) explains.

Art therapy is often done in a group setting with a trained professional who gives some guidance to begin a project and then lets people express themselves as they see fit. It can commonly be used as a tool to open up discussion within a group. Art therapy can also be individual and useful in helping a person recognize their own emotions through creative expression.

There are a few different art therapy techniques that can be used during art therapy sessions, including Gestalt methods, the third-hand approach, and active imagination. With Gestalt methods, the art is used as a stepping-stone for therapeutic discussion either during the artistic process, after it is completed, or a combination of both.

The third-hand method is more directed, as the therapist will give more explicit instructions during the creation process. The result and creative expression are still up to the person who is doing the creating.

With active imagination art therapy, art is the starting point for the discussion. Then, the creator is allowed to offer free associations as to what the art cultivates for them emotionally and beyond.

Many creative forms are used in art therapy. They include:

  •  Painting
  •  Sketching
  •  Charcoal drawing
  •  Coloring
  •  Sculpture
  •  Ceramics and working with modeling clay
  •  Drawing
  •  Finger painting
  •  Carving
  •  Textile work
  •  Scribbling
  •  Watercolor painting
  •  Collage making

Art therapy is often classified as a method of creative expression therapy, which also includes other avenues of expression, such as dance, theater, writing, and music. Different forms of art therapy and creative expression can tap into different feelings and emotions, and sometimes, it can bring out things that a person may not have even known were there.

It doesn’t require thinking — just action — which can be very empowering. It can help participants to feel more connected and in tune with themselves, and this can raise self-awareness. The act of creating something can positively impact self-esteem, as finishing a painting or a sculpture can provide a sense of accomplishment.

“Art therapy can help to improve social dynamics and even resolve conflict. Art therapy can provide new ways for communicating thoughts and emotions, and provide a starting place for discussion.”

Art is freeform and nonverbal. It can offer a measure of stress relief and away for a person to get out of their own head for a bit while creating something.

You do not need to have any previous or innate artistic talent to engage in art therapy. Psychology Today reports that art therapy is more about the connection between the artistic process itself than the finished product.

Best Uses for Art Therapy

During art therapy, a trained therapist may ask a person to draw, paint, or sculpt how they feel in that moment. This form of expression can open up new avenues for discussion, and interpretation of the results can be insightful for the therapist and the client. Often, things may manifest in the artistic creation that was not expected, and it can help to release pent-up feelings and stress.

As explained by Psychology Today, expression through art can stimulate your senses in a new way and help you to feel things you may not have otherwise. It acts as a kind of shortcut to your emotions in a way that traditional talk therapy may not.

Watercolor paints and brushes scattered on a table

Art therapy is a conjunctive method, meaning that it is most helpful when used with traditional therapies. It is often incorporated into cognitive behavioral therapy sessions as a tool for opening a person up.

The International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) reports that creative expression can help to foster growth in both communities and individuals as an all-inclusive modality. Everyone can participate. Individuals who may not be able to communicate with each other verbally because of language or other barriers may be able to effectively do so through art and creative expression.

“The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA) publishes that in 2014, close to 8 million people in the United States battled addiction and also had a co-occurring mental health disorder at the same time. Art therapy can be highly beneficial in treating emotional distress.

It can, therefore, be helpful when used in the treatment of co-occurring addiction and mental illness, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Art therapy can also be a great tool for managing stress, which often goes hand in hand with addiction.”


Addiction is a chronic disease of the brain with relapse rates of 40 percent to 60 percent, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports. Art therapy can provide effective stress relief, which can help to minimize instances of relapse and, therefore, enhance sustained recovery.

Art therapy can be integrated into a complete addiction treatment program as a way to enhance treatment methods and provide a comprehensive care plan. While it won’t be used as the primary method of addiction treatment, it can be an effective means of support for many in recovery.

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