Q: Our daughter has always been extremely artistic and visual. The social worker on our team suggested she see an art therapist as a way to help her deal with her diabetes diagnosis. What does an art therapist do, and how might seeing one help?

A: An art therapist is a mental health treatment provider who uses art-making to help people explore thoughts, feelings, and experiences, as well as identify and resolve areas of conflict in their lives. Art therapy is based on the belief that artistic expression is inherently healing, and it facilitates creative problem-solving and promotes insight. An art therapist is a master’s level clinician with a degree in art therapy, trained in art therapy theory and techniques, and holding the credentials A.T.R. (Art Therapist Registered) or A.T.R.-B.C. (Art Therapist Registered Board Certified).

It’s common for adults and children with diabetes to experience a wide range of emotions, including anger, shame, guilt and sadness. Distress from these emotions can occur at diagnosis, or it can develop over time in response to the “never-ending-ness” of managing diabetes. When left unaddressed, these emotions can lead to depression, anxiety, and behavior issues.

Using art therapy as a way to address these underlying emotions can be helpful for children who may not have the verbal skills or insight to identify what’s wrong. Likewise, art therapy can be beneficial for people with diabetes of any age who need help expressing their emotions in a constructive way or would like a fresh perspective on their problems.

A standard appointment with an art therapist lasts approximately 45 to 50 minutes. Parents usually accompany their child for the first few minutes to talk to the therapist before stepping out. Once they are working one-on-one, the art therapist typically provides the child with an art prompt designed to address the child’s issues and a selection of art materials (paper, pens, paint, chalk, etc.). For example, a child might be asked to draw his diabetes as an animal or to simply draw a picture of his family.

After this art-making time, the art therapist will process the experience in a guided discussion. The therapist might ask the child to tell a story about his or her drawing or inquire about placement of objects and anything that seemed notable about the piece or the creation process. Information shared by the child can then lead to a deeper conversation about how themes or issues in the art relate to the child’s life.

To put to rest a common misconception, no art training or skill is necessary to benefit from art therapy. Anyone can do it. It’s not about being good at drawing or painting, but about getting a new perspective from visual expression and using one’s natural creativity. Art therapy promotes problem-solving skills and confidence in the ability to tackle new challenges, which can positively affect diabetes management.

To find an art therapist near you, ask your diabetes care team for their recommendations. In the United States, the art therapy profession is governed by the American Art Therapy Association, and art therapists are credentialed by the Art Therapy Credentials Board. Both of these organizations are also places that can refer you to qualified art therapists in your area.

–Lee Ann Thill, M.A., A.T.R.-B.C., L.P.C., is an art therapist in private practice in Bensalem, Penn., and an adjunct professor of art therapy at Holy Family University in Philadelphia.


How Other Parents Deal

“At a support group we attend, rotating experts come in to do activities with the kids. My son Jack lights up whenever it’s the art therapist’s turn to come in! One time she had the kids make clay sculptures showing objects that are important to them — each child then took a turn explaining what they made and why. Another time, the kids made puppets and worked in pairs to come up with a skit about diabetes. They’re fun projects, but you can see how the art is helping the kids express their true feelings.”

–Shawna, mom of 7-year-old Jack


Disclaimer: The information in these articles is not intended as medical advice. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding individual care.


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