Creative Art Therapies: Health or Mental Health Professions?

Being a creative arts therapist requires a flexible GPS.

Posted Sep 30, 2014

I recently wrote a piece called “Art Therapy and its Counseling Accreditation Wah-Wah” [aka about the impact of counselor education accreditation standards on state licensing] for LinkedIn’s platform Pulse. That brief article brought about many questions from readers about where the creative arts therapies [particularly art, music and dance/movement therapy] fall in terms of classification—that is, are these therapies considered mental health professions or allied healthcare professions? The short answer is, “it’s complicated.”

Music therapy, a profession with a bachelor’s degree entry level and board certification, is possibly the clearest in terms of its professional vision. In fact, music therapy as a profession has what I consider to be the most unified vision for its profession of all the creative arts therapies. The American Music Therapy Association clearly states that music therapy interventions can be designed Music therapy interventions can be designed to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, promote physical rehabilitation, enhance memory, and express feelings. Most of those outcomes fall into the realm of health and wellness in addition to psychosocial goals of self-expression and communication skills. While there are music therapists at master’s and doctoral levels who practice from psychodynamic and other psychotherapeutic frameworks, the foundations of the profession lean toward allied health and that is where music therapy has successfully established a field for its practitioners.

Dance/movement therapy is very similar to music therapy in terms of promotion of wellness, stress reduction and physical rehabilitation. It also is increasingly recognized for its applications with mental health issues such as psychological trauma because of recent emphasis on concepts like the “body keeps the score [Bessel van der Kolk],” the vagal response [Stephen Porges] and somatic experiencing [Peter Levine]. However, despite the body-based approach central to dance/movement therapy, the American Dance Therapy Association actually took a stand on its identity in 2000 by issuing a statement that aligned the profession with the mental health profession of counseling via the National Board of Certified Counselors [see and So if you decide to become a dance/movement therapist, it is likely that the master’s level program you attend will offer coursework so that upon graduation you are eligible to apply for a professional or mental health counselor license.

Art therapy, unfortunately, has a much more complex and often perplexing narrative. On one hand, the current emphasis in most graduate art therapy education programs is on mental health counseling, offering coursework to meet both board certification in art therapy and counseling licensure at the state level. Some educational programs have or are about to obtain accreditation in counselor education from the Council on Accreditation of Counseling and Related Programs [CACREP] so that graduates can more easily meet eligibility requirements for counselor licensure throughout the US. However, here is where the complexity and perplexity emerges—there is also a movement at the national level to offer accreditation for educational programs by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs [CAAHEP], a body that accredits educational programming in radiology, perfusion, anesthesia technology, surgical technology, and recreation therapy, among others [see]. In contrast to CACREP [you are probably getting confused by the acronyms by now], CAAHEP is an accreditation that leans toward healthcare professions. The rationale for a specific art therapy education accreditation is the development of art therapy licensure and reciprocity across state lines, standardization of art therapy competencies, quality control for the consumer, and ultimately reimbursement for art therapy services, which have been sporadic so far.

So are the creative arts therapies mental health or allied health professions? The answer may be “both.” It depends largely on two factors. Pragmatically, the defining factor may be in how these approaches are accepted within current and future healthcare settings. Additionally, creative arts therapies research [particularly randomized clinical trials] will determine how and where these approaches are perceived to be effective. And for more information on the field of art therapy’s challenges in particular, please read my post at Pulse on

As the Scarecrow (The Wizard of Oz, 1939) said, "Of course, some people do go both ways,"

Cathy Malchiodi, PhD

© 2014 Cathy A. Malchiodi

Visit my website at for more information on art therapy and creative arts therapies.

For more information on Trauma-Informed Art Therapy and Trauma-Informed Expressive Arts Therapy, visit the Trauma-Informed Practices and Expressive Arts Therapy Institute at