What does an Expressive Arts Therapist do?

Self-expression is a basic human behavior, a way of putting the self in relation to the rest of the world. It consists of creating or arranging something external—words, sounds, colors, movements, objects—in order to express something internal and often personal. Few understand the power and importance of this kind of artistic creation better than expressive arts therapists, who use the same process to help clients make sense of their lives, process difficult memories or experiences, reduce daily stress, increase resilience, address specific behavioral and psychological problems, and even cope with the distress caused by medical illnesses. Unlike music therapists, drama therapists, or dance/movement therapists, expressive arts therapists use a multimodal method, meaning they employ many different expressive forms in treatment. As a result, they have a great ability to tailor their approach to the specific needs, capabilities, and responses of the client.

Expressive arts therapists are chiefly interested in using the creative process to trigger healing and growth.

Rather than educating clients on art-making techniques or critiquing their work, expressive arts therapists are chiefly interested in using the creative process to trigger healing and growth. Results are derived both from the inherent therapeutic value of self-expression—an outlet that can bring feelings of relief, calm, agency, and accomplishment—and the process of discussing and unpacking the emotions, ideas, and memories that inevitably surface when people enter an engaged creative state. To that end, most therapists use classical art forms like music, drama, dance, painting, writing, and sculpture. However, there are also many less obvious—but no less effective—avenues of expression, such as photography, fashion, decorating, cooking, gardening, game-making, mask-making, and imaginative play. Clients may include children, adults, and families in individual or group sessions.

At a Glance

Career Path

Expressive arts therapists come from many artistic backgrounds, but are generally united by an interest in health and wellness and using the arts to inspire and empower others. Some begin as therapists working with only a single creative art—for example, a music therapist, dance therapist, or drama therapist—before later incorporating other artistic modes into their practice, and seeking certification as an official expressive arts therapist. Education is relatively important in this field; most expressive arts therapists will need a master's degree. Seasoned therapists might start their own clinic, found an art-therapy nonprofit, switch to teaching, or get a doctoral degree and begin conducting research.

Finding Work
Any mental health professional can use the expressive arts in their therapeutic process, but only those qualified by the International Expressive Arts Therapy Association (IEATA) can practice as registered expressive arts therapists. To be certified, one needs at minimum a master's degree in counseling or a related field and to complete an affiliated training program including supervised clinical work. Most expressive arts therapists are freelancers and can find work in a wide variety of settings, including private practices, medical and mental hospitals, hospice, community centers, rehabilitation programs, and correctional facilities.
Professional Skills
  • Foundations in a wide variety of arts
  • Establishing therapeutic relationships
  • Client assessment
  • Treatment planning
  • Guided improvisation
  • Excellent written and verbal communication
  • Research skills
Interpersonal Skills

Good expressive arts therapists are patient, perceptive, attentive, emotionally open, and committed to their patients. They have excellent verbal communication skills and a deep appreciation for the power of art and the creative process. They should also be practiced at helping others to feel comfortable.

Work Life

Expressive arts therapists work different schedules depending on their employment situation. Some are full-time employees with regular hours, while others are contractors who bounce between gigs in multiple locations. While most sessions are one-on-one, group sessions are also possible, particularly in the world of nonprofit work. The job doesn't usually require significant travel.

The Berklee Boost

Employers look for skills learned in the following Berklee programs.