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Art Therapy and Counseling: True Love or Convenience?

Art therapy, are you stuck in a bad romance?

In previous posts I have commented on the growing trend toward combining art therapy and counseling within master's degrees and the challenges potential students face in making a decision about art therapy as a career path. In “Can I Get a Job as an Art Therapist? It’s Complicated,” I also noted that fulfilling your vision for becoming a professional whose central function is to be an art therapist, not a counselor, is not always so easy as it sounds. The marriage between art therapy and counseling has not necessarily resulted in more art therapy jobs and often comes with additional hoops and hurdles. Just how did becoming an art therapist get so complicated?

If asked, most art therapy educators will say that the alliance between art therapy and counseling was a proactive move to make possible more options for graduating students to apply their degree in the workforce. They also frequently offer that an association with counseling emerged because art therapists inevitably use verbal approaches within the context of their work. Others boldly preach that bringing counseling into art therapy actually strengthens the field and has secured a healthy future for the field. Well, yes and no.

There is no doubt any additional opportunity for a credential [license] can help in a subsequent search for employment; remember "art therapist" is not a licensed professional title in most states in the US. But the real reasons for the marriage between art therapy and counseling are not often discussed and have largely remained the proverbial elephant in the living room. Becoming a life partner with counseling did not emerge only because art therapy graduate programs were terrifically concerned about students’ abilities to get great jobs, post-graduation. In reality, only a decade ago many art therapy graduate programs were starting to drop in enrollments. Why? Because realistically there just are not that many purely art therapy jobs out there. Art therapy master’s degree programs are also mostly located in more expensive private colleges and universities, not lower-cost state institutions. In order for these programs to stay flush with students and tuition needed to keep these degrees in operation [and for art therapy educators to keep their jobs], a marriage of convenience began to take place to grow the art therapy education industry, so to speak.

It was also quite handy that counseling happened to be the only partner who would accept art therapy as a “related field” in terms of degree titles eligible for state licensure. In the late 1990s and the beginning of the 21st century, counseling needed practitioners to add to its own numbers and thus complete its own quest for licensure in all 50 states. Thus a marriage of two professions began so that both parties could obtain desired status and security in a competitive mental health marketplace. Once this marriage gained momentum, art therapy/counseling graduate degrees started to emerge at a pace of several a year, some receiving more applicants than they can enroll, and others admitting far more students than can ever find art therapy positions at a living wage. Art therapy education has become big business for many private institutions of higher learning as numbers of eager applicants seem pretty much endless, despite the lack of art therapy jobs.

Like human marriages of convenience, the one art therapy has entered into is proving to present significant costs to the field. Just as in a marriage where one partner has more power, wealth or more family members than the other, that partner often has the upper hand in how the partnership plays out, consciously or not. Professional and mental health counseling have upwards of 100,000 practitioners in the US; art therapy possibly has 5000 or 6000 and many of those under job titles other than “art therapist.” A growing number of master’s degree programs art therapy are giving up “master’s in art therapy” on the diploma to take the name “master’s in counseling” in order to benefit from what the partner’s larger professional family has to offer in terms of privilege and opportunity. And as more and more state counseling boards now turn to requiring the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs [CACREP] standards for eligibility for a counseling license, programs will be required to become counseling master’s degrees by name and will eventually have to hire new professors who hold doctorates in counselor education. To those individuals considering art therapy doctoral programs, understand that you may soon be ineligible to become a professor in many art therapy graduate programs that adopt CACREP standards or are considering counseling accreditation.

Perhaps art therapy could learn more about partnering from its creative arts therapy cousin music therapy that has faired well without a marriage to another profession. Music therapy has focused on clarifying its unique identity, developing alliances within allied health and medicine, and demonstrating its value and position in the continuum of healthcare services. By some definitions, art therapy as a field is in its mid-40s age-wise in the US, only a little bit younger than the field of music therapy. In the human lifecycle, one would expect that art therapy would be capable of living on its own by now and enjoying the accomplishments that come with independence, self-satisfaction, generativity and equal partnerships.

Instead, the field of art therapy seems to be finding itself increasingly stuck in a relationship that is taking time away from its own individuation as a profession. But what I find most disheartening is that rather than cultivating and expanding the profession, art therapy education has managed to get itself stuck in what may be turning into a bad romance. It certainly is one that entails increasing capitulation to a more powerful partner who is calling the regulatory shots and rules for licensure and license portability across state lines. More importantly, this dominant partner may eventually define standards of art therapy education and accreditation, relegating art therapy to the status of a technique within counseling rather than the dynamic, art-based and creativity-driven profession that its founders and visionaries intended.

© 2013 Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC

For more information on art therapy, please visit my Psychology Today author's page for free downloadable information or visit this resources page at

See you at the International Conference on Art Therapy in Shenzhen, China on May 15th and 16th, 2013; see for more information on registration and program details.

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