What is an art therapist?

Art therapists work with people to explore their emotions and feelings through art and creative activities. They help people express themselves and build self-confidence using:

  • paint
  • paper
  • clay

They support children and young people, adults and older people who may have emotional, physical or mental health problems.

To work in the NHS, art therapists must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

My name is Janine Kelly and I'm an art therapist. An art therapist is someone who is qualified in art and psychological therapies to work with people, patients, children, young people, adults who have had, maybe, traumatic life events or mental health difficulties.

On a typical day I would do one-to-one sessions with children and young people – which would mean that this was child-led – and they could come along and explore whatever’s on their mind at that time, and I would help them to work through, using the artwork, and help them to think about the artwork in a meaningful way.

I work with occupational therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists [and] nurse therapists. I also work with the wider network that support the child or young person – the school, the social workers, any other agencies involved in the care of the child.

I became an art therapist because I was passionate about art. I also had a family member had mental health issues and I think I used art to help explore some of my feelings around that, and I wanted to help other people who are in the same situation, [people] whose family member had mental health issues.

The best part is really seeing the progress that's made for children and young people, seeing how they become more self-aware and build up resilience in themselves and, kind of, how we move on in life. I think that's one of the things. And also, I suppose, the other part is, yeah, I love looking at the artwork and seeing what's created, what they explore and really helping them to think about that. I think that's another part that's [a] really interesting part of the job.

I think you need to be someone who's very understanding and warm, [someone] who really wants to help the person to get better. I think you have to have a lot of compassion and patience and understanding.

I would recommend it because it's very varied. I also feel there's a lot of self-reward in being an art therapist and you're still using creative skills and a lot of psychological thought around a person, which can be really interesting.

How you can become an art therapist

Choosing subjects at school

To get on a course that could lead to a career as an art therapist, useful subjects include:

  • Art and Design
  • Psychology
  • Maths
  • English

Work placements and volunteering

You may find it helpful to get some experience of working in healthcare by doing a work placement. There may also be opportunities to volunteer. This could help you when applying to university, college, or a new job with NHSScotland.


Foundation Apprenticeships

To begin your career journey as an art therapist, you could take a relevant Foundation Apprenticeship. 

Find out more about a Foundation Apprenticeship in Social Services and Healthcare.

College and university

You’ll need a postgraduate qualification in Art Psychotherapy to become an art therapist with NHSScotland.

Useful undergraduate degrees include:

  • Psychology
  • Teaching
  • Occupational Therapy

Nursing or Social Work may also be considered.

Widening access

Widening participation supports adult learners who want to go to university. If you’re an adult with few or no qualifications you could get into higher education through the Scottish Wider Access Programme (SWAP). Many universities also provide access programmes to help you get the degree entry qualifications you need.

Art therapist courses

To decide if this career is right for you, you may decide to do an art therapy workshop or foundation course. Training is provided by the British Association of Art Therapists (BAAT).

Art therapist postgraduate degree

In Scotland, you can do a postgraduate programme in Art Psychotherapy at Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh. This pre-registration programme takes 2 years full-time or 3 to 4 years part-time.

Search for college or university courses on My World of Work.

Art therapist role

As an art therapist, you will create a secure environment where people can come to terms with their difficulties, disabilities, or diagnoses. These include:

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

You will support people individually or as part of a group.

What you’ll do

Tasks include:

  • assessing people's needs
  • evaluating and understanding the emotions and behaviours of others
  • planning and facilitating creative activities
  • accepting referrals from other health professionals, such as occupational therapists and psychologists

Top skills

You’ll need these skills:

  • creativity
  • communication
  • observation 
  • organisation
  • relationship-building
  • caring
  • compassion

Who you’ll work with

Art therapists work with other healthcare professionals, including:

  • psychologists
  • nurses
  • healthcare support workers
  • social workers
  • teachers
  • dramatherapists
  • music therapists

Working environment

You could work in:

  • hospitals
  • schools and education centres
  • hospices
  • care homes
  • prisons

Useful information

To work as an art therapist in NHSScotland, you’ll need to:

Did you know?

Art therapy is a form of psychotherapy dating back to the 1940s and 1950s. There are more than 4,400 registered arts therapists in the UK, including art, drama, and music therapists.

Learning and development

During your career, you’ll be expected to keep your skills and knowledge up to date through Continuing Professional Development (CPD). The British Association of Arts Therapists (BAAT) provides:

  • training courses
  • conferences
  • seminars 

Career progression

You could choose to specialise in working with specific client groups, such as:

  • children and young people
  • older people
  • offenders

You may decide to become a specialist in a particular area like supporting people:

  • living with dementia
  • addressing mental health problems
  • receiving palliative care

As an experienced practitioner, you could become a senior or consultant art therapist, managing the work of a team of therapists.

You might decide to become the head of an arts therapy department. Here you could coordinate the work of therapists from other disciplines, such as music therapy or drama therapy.

Once you’re in a more senior position, you could also train other art therapists.

Professional bodies

To become an NHSScotland art therapist, you must be registered with the HCPC.

Once qualified, you can also join:

NHSScotland vacancies

Find your perfect career in NHSScotland.

Information leaflet

Download our art therapist careers information leaflet.