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Art Therapy for Addiction

Addiction, clinically referred to as substance use disorder (SUD), is a chronic, but treatable health condition in which it is difficult for a person to control their use of a substance despite experiencing negative consequences at home, school, or work.1 SUD is prevalent in the United States; in 2020, more than 40 million people aged 12 and older had a past-year SUD.2

While there is no one-size-fits-all approach to addiction treatment, it often includes behavioral therapy, medication, and support groups.1 Recovery may also involve complementary and alternative (CAM) therapy options, such as art therapy.3

While more research into the efficacy of art therapy is needed, studies show that art therapy for people struggling with SUD may help decrease anxiety, improve communication skills, and reduce a person’s opposition to receiving treatment.3

This article will help you understand:

  • What art therapy is.
  • The benefits of art therapy.
  • What to expect in an art therapy program.
  • How to find art therapy treatment near you.

What Is Art Therapy?

Art therapy is a therapeutic intervention that uses art and creative expression to explore a person’s emotions or feelings.4 One of the main goals of art therapy is to help a person improve their overall functioning and rebuild their well-being.4

Through art therapy, a person may find that they can build and restore their self-esteem, create self-awareness, work through emotional conflicts, develop healthy coping skills, and learn how to regulate their emotions.4

Art therapy in the treatment of substance use disorder (SUD) can be traced back to the 1940s when it was described in published literature by Adrian Hill.3, 5 Hill was the first employed art therapist in the United Kingdom and used art therapy himself to cope with his tuberculosis diagnosis.5

Today, art therapy is used in the treatment of a wide array of conditions, including:3, 5

  • Substance use disorder.
  • HIV/AIDs.
  • Alzheimer’s.
  • Dementia.
  • Bipolar disorder.
  • Borderline personality disorder (BPD).
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Schizophrenia.
  • Traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
  • Sexual trauma.

What to Expect in Art Therapy

Art therapy programs can differ greatly depending on the needs of the person or group. However, a person can expect to work with a post-graduate-level health professional who has undertaken studies in art therapy and is trained to work with diverse populations in various settings.6, 7

During a session, a person can expect to use non-verbal means of expression such as drawing, journaling, painting, sculpting, and other forms of media.3 Expressive art therapy may use drama, movement, music, and writing in addition to the visual arts to help a person or group explore their feelings in a supportive setting.7

Benefits of Art Therapy

Art therapy can have several benefits for people struggling with substance use disorder (SUD).3 Using creative mediums can help a person work through difficult emotions and feelings that might be challenging to talk about otherwise. Having a form of expression available can also help a person confront their emotions.

Additional benefits of art therapy include:3, 4

  • Decreased anxiety.
  • Decreased stress levels.
  • Improved self-esteem.
  • Improved social skills.
  • Improved communication.
  • Decreased denial.
  • Fewer feelings of shame.
  • Increased motivation to change.

Does Art Therapy Work for Addiction Recovery?

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has shown that the use of complementary and alternative medical (CAM) therapy options like art therapy has increased significantly over the years.3 While art therapy has been shown to have positive clinical effects on mental health disorders, more research is needed to fully understand its efficacy.8

For patients with substance use disorder (SUD), art therapy has been shown to decrease denial, lessen shame, and reduce opposition to receiving treatment.3 One study found that the use of the 12-step approach and motivational enhancement therapy (MET) at treatment centers was positively associated with art therapy.3

While not directly related to SUD patients, other studies show that art therapy can play a significant role in alleviating symptoms of anxiety and depression.8 As many as 50% of SUD patients also struggle with a co-occurring mental health disorder.9 This suggests that art therapy may provide benefits when used in conjunction with other types of evidence-based treatment, such as behavioral therapy, medications, and support groups.9

Finding Art Therapy Near You

If you or someone you care about are struggling with drug or alcohol misuse, help is available. Addiction treatment can help people stop using substances and regain control of their life. Recovery looks different for everyone, but treatment may include a combination of behavioral counseling, medication, co-occurring disorder evaluation and treatment, and follow-up care.1

There are a variety of treatment centers that offer holistic addiction treatment programs, but art therapy isn’t offered at every facility. If art therapy is something you wish to incorporate into your recovery, contact the treatment center and inquire if art therapy is a part of their curriculum.

If you are ready to learn more about addiction treatment, American Addiction Centers (AAC) is ready to help. AAC is a leading provider of evidence-based addiction treatment with facilities across the U.S. You can call our free, confidential helpline at for more information about rehab, and easily verify your insurance by filling out the form below.

Frequently Asked Questions About Art Therapy

More resources about Art Therapy for Addiction: