So You Want to be an Art Therapist, Part Five: The Tale of Two Art Therapists

Two tales of art therapy as a career path

Posted Mar 29, 2011

After describing the confusing maze of art therapy degrees and credentials, I promised to try to be less of a Debbie Downer in this next post. In truth, the art therapy job outlook is generally unknown because there is really no reliable information on who is employed as an art therapist or as some other type of mental health, allied health or education professional or even how many graduates actually successfully remain in the field. If an art therapy association, art therapy blog or website or professor in the master's degree program tells you that their grads are being employed as art therapists at some astronomical rate, ask them to give you a copy of the study or career outlook report from a state or Federal source. No one really knows what the stats are on "art therapist" as a career at this time.

So the two tales I am going to tell you are based on my daily interaction with the field of art therapy for the past three decades, the thousands of emails received from those looking for work or finding jobs, and working myself as an art therapist for about the same number of years. These two tales are, of course, not the only ones, but are two of the more oft-told story lines I have encountered during the last several years.

Tale #1: Art Therapist as Mental Health Professional. Because many art therapy graduate programs have aligned their coursework with counseling competencies, many students find themselves focused on obtaining a license as either a professional counselor [LPC] or a mental health counselor [LPCC and other acronym] upon graduation. Their programs of study allow them to obtain this credential after graduation and find some sort of position as a counselor or similar title. There is even a term floating around these days called "art therapy counselor." Like the Wizard of Oz says from behind the curtain, pay no attention to that term because it does not exist as a category in career databases or state licensure; "counselor" does, however.

When new grads who originally set out to become art therapists take this route, I often ask myself, at what cost? It is a pragmatic plan for many because there is a license to practice counseling as a result available in most cases [revisit Parts 2, 3 and 4 of this series for more information]. In order to provide psychotherapy, in most cases this route creates that eligibility and the added bonus of third party payment under certain circumstances. For some, eventually it may be a stepping stone to other opportunities if one can weather the first few years to become licensed and then open up a private practice or similar self-employment situation.

However, not everyone can or wants to be an independent practitioner and the market simply is not able to bear an art therapy private practice on every corner. Many helping professionals need the stability of a position that provides healthcare, vacation, and retirement benefits at some point, too. For those who need those reasonable employment perks and do not want the isolation of a private practice, they may end up in positions that offer little to no opportunity to realize their visions and passions for using art to help people. Honestly, I really feel for these graduates; early in my career, I did some case management and took on down-and-dirty low-pay counseling jobs for a short time. Some of it was rewarding and interesting [like eye-opening home visits to intervene with hoarders and work with law enforcement]; other times I wanted to take a swan dive out of the office window after filling out unending lengthy case reports or Medicaid billings. If I had to do that every single day for the foreseeable future, I think I would just a soon work at Starbucks as a barista.

Tale #2: Art Therapist as Allied Health Professional. The arena that I think is a better bet for those who really want to do some actual art therapy on a regular basis is in allied health. By allied health, I mean working in a medical setting and for the most part, in a hospital and particularly pediatric care, although there is work to be found with adults and older adults, too. In general, these art therapists are actually doing art therapy as opposed to some form of verbal counseling or case management [the endless paper pushing]. Jobs are by no means plentiful, but I have yet to talk to an art therapist employed in a medical setting who does not speak with pride and excitement about the work and job satisfaction. To give you an idea of about Tale #2, here is a short film about one art therapist who works with children in a large metropolitan hospital:

Now granted, there are art therapists who make their way in community and non-profit organization work and a few in education [but that is a spotty area due to current lack of funding for public school services], but the two tales I have shared are the current major employment narratives in the field. As I mentioned in previous posts, some individuals who are interested in applying art therapy to their work pursue education and experience in arts in healthcare, play therapy or creative arts in counseling-- three areas I'll write about later this year.

And there are some other questions that I am asked almost every week like "should I get a doctorate?" And, "what kind of doctorate should I get?" "How about an art therapy doctorate?" "I want to teach [because I can't find an art therapist job I can stand for the next 20 years], will a doctorate help?" These questions are the subject of Part 6 and as King Lear said, "oh, that way madness lies"...well, maybe not in every single situation, but it's complicated.

Be well,

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD, LPAT, LPCC