Art therapist

Art therapy allows people to express their emotions and feelings through art and creative activities, to help them build self-awareness and self-confidence.

Art therapists help people to work through their emotions and deal with difficult issues by expressing themselves using materials such as paint, paper, and clay. They can work with children and young people, adults and the elderly who present a range of emotional, physical or mental health problems.

Art therapists often work with other healthcare professionals such as psychologists, nurses and social workers as part of a multidisciplinary team. They must be able to relate to people from different backgrounds. 

Supporting clients individually or as part of a group, art therapists create a secure environment to help them to come to terms with their difficulties, disabilities or diagnoses. These can include:

  • emotional, behavioural or mental health problems
  • learning or physical disabilities
  • neurological conditions or physical illnesses

Typical duties will include:

  • assessing the needs of clients
  • assessing and understanding the emotions and behaviours of others
  • planning and facilitating creative activities
  • accepting referrals from other health professionals such as occupational therapists and psychiatrists

Useful skills include:

  • artistic skills and ideas
  • resourcefulness
  • communication skills
  • observation and listening skills

Useful abilities include:

  • flexibility
  • able to facilitate learning and self development
  • able to handle sensitive and difficult issues
  • resilience
  • patience and understanding
  • confident when working with individuals and groups
  • maturity

To practice as an art therapist in NHSScotland, you must be registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) after completing an approved postgraduate programme. A full list of approved institutions and programmes in the UK is available on the HCPC website.

In Scotland, you can study for an MSc in Art Psychotherapy (International) at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh. This programme is approved by the HCPC and takes 2 years full time or 3-4 years part time. To gain access to the course, you are likely to need:

  • an honours degree in art or a related subject
  • a portfolio of art work in a variety of media
  • 1 years work experience or voluntary work in community arts projects, or in a health, educational or social work setting

Degrees in subjects such as psychology, education, occupational therapy, nursing or social work may also be considered. You are advised to contact QMU directly to find out what other subjects they will accept.

The British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT) runs ‘Introduction to the Profession of Art Therapy’ courses, which could help you to decide if this is the right career for you.

Once qualified and registered with the HCPC, art therapists can join the British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT).

Registered arts therapists have to keep their skills and knowledge up to date through Continuing Professional Development (CPD). The BAAT runs courses, conferences and seminars where art therapists can exchange ideas and update their skills.

You could choose to specialise in working with a particular type of client such as children, the elderly or offenders. You may decide to become a specialist in a particular area, such as working with people who have dementia, mental health problems or in palliative care.

As an experienced practitioner, you could become a senior or consultant art therapist, managing the work of a team of therapists. You could also become the head of an arts therapy department, coordinating the work of therapists from other disciplines such as music or dramatherapists. Other opportunities include training other art therapists.

Find out more information from these professional bodies:

Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC)

The HCPC is an independent, UK-wide regulatory body responsible for setting and maintaining standards for health, psychological, and social work professionals. It maintains a public register of qualified professionals and works to improve industry standards and education. Visit the HCPC website to find out more.

British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT)

The BAAT is the professional organisation for art therapists in the United Kingdom. It works to promote art therapy in the UK and has it’s own code of ethics in professional practice. The BAAT also maintains a directory of qualified art therapists in the UK. Find out more on the BAAT website.