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Why art therapy may work when other approaches don’t

And why one state senator wants to establish licensure for those who practice it

Natalie Blue, left, and Madelene Pario are co-owners of the Artful Life Counseling Center and Studio in Salem.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

You don’t need to have previous art experience to benefit from art therapy. Art therapists work with all types of clients — in rehab, in schools, in hospitals, and in private practice — helping them to heal through painting, drawing, sculpting, and other media.

“Clients are often surprised, if not shocked, by what they created,” said Sara Roizen, who teaches art therapy at Emmanuel College. “Art has this amazing way of gently but powerfully moving through walls we’ve put up in our lives, often not consciously.”

While art therapists go through rigorous training and receive professional credentials from the Art Therapy Credentials Board, there is no license for practicing art therapy in Massachusetts, or in most states. To practice therapy and get insurance reimbursement in Massachusetts, art therapists must also fulfill state requirements for a license in mental health counseling or social work.

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Having the correct degree, certification, and licensure to practice in any state is a balancing act for many mental health practitioners.

“I feel like for art therapists in particular, it’s a challenge,” said Natalie Blue, co-owner and director of the Artful Life Counseling Center and Studio in Salem. “I’ve known people who’ve been told they need to go back and get a whole new master’s degree in order to be able to practice because of state licensure requirements.”

Action in the State House may make the path easier. Senator Diana DiZoglio, who represents the 1st Essex District, is sponsoring a bill to establish licensure for art therapists. Earlier this year, the State Senate included it in a study order concerning consumer protection and professional licensure, and DiZoglio is still working to move the bill, which she introduced in 2019, forward.

“We desperately need increased access to mental health services across the board in the state of Massachusetts, especially post-pandemic,” DiZoglio said. “And art therapy is something that has proven to be incredibly effective and helpful for folks struggling with mental health challenges.”

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Art therapy as a formal modality has been around since the mid-20th century; the term was coined in 1942. In Massachusetts, Lesley University established an expressive therapies program, calling it “arts-based knowing,” in 1974. Today, Lesley offers the educational requirements for a licensed mental health counselor license (LMHC) in the state alongside those for a registered art therapy credential.

Some of the artwork at the Artful Life Counseling Center and Studio.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“The way I work is completely dependent on who I’m working with and what their needs are, and I tailor my approaches to their needs,” said Raquel Stephenson, associate professor and art therapy program coordinator at Lesley. Stephenson has worked with homeless people, with patients in a psychiatric hospital, and with people who have dementia.

“There’s still somebody in there,” she said of working with clients with dementia. “But all those things that require thinking and speaking are off the table. Instead, you can have paint, and dip a brush, and have a blue or red stroke across the paper. And you don’t need words. It’s a direct, emotional-visual connection between the artist and what’s happening that bypasses the whole verbal, primary processing of our brains.”

Art therapy has a way of letting the body speak when words don’t suffice.

Therapist Allison Rabin holds some of her clients' artwork at the Artful Life Counseling Center and Studio.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

“One way art therapy is different than traditional psychotherapy is that it’s a multi-sensory experience,” said Lauren Leone, a Somerville art therapist. “That sensory experience and that somatic experience is really important. That’s where art therapy can be helpful in ways that maybe other [therapeutic] approaches haven’t been.”

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While different art-making materials can satisfy different emotional needs — the precision of a pencil, say, versus the expressiveness of a paintbrush — Leone doesn’t interpret the art her clients create. “I really believe that the person who created it is the one who has the meaning,” she said.

Blue said that the quality of a client’s art has no bearing on its value.

“It can be stick figures,” she said. “But when you put it in between you and the client, the client can talk about that.”

“It shifts the dynamic in their brain,” she added. “As opposed to being about them, it’s about the art.”

Blue and Madelene Pario opened Artful Life in 2016. Their 7,700-square-foot facility has 15 counseling offices and two studios, and 25 therapists work there — dance and drama therapists as well as art therapists. Artful Life also offers mini-retreats for adults and support groups for children and adolescents.

Younger clients, Blue said, tackle a variety of issues in their groups.

“We help kids expand their emotional vocabulary through art-making, being able to identify emotions in their body and feeling like they’re less alone,” she said. “Kids are creating pieces of art as a group. So they’re working on social skill development. They’re working on frustration tolerance. They’re working on empathy for other people.”

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Erica Curcio, an Everett art therapist who works with seniors, is a licensed mental health counselor as well as an art therapist who describes herself as “passionate” about the work.

“The [licensed mental health counselor] carries more weight in terms of mental health. But I don’t necessarily lead with that. I lead with ‘I’m a registered art therapist,’” she said. “I’m so proud to be an art therapist.”

Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misidentified Sara Roizen’s college affiliation. She teaches at Emmanuel College.


Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq. Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com