Art Therapy for Substance Use and Mental Health Disorders

Updated on 09/12/23

George E. Miller said, “Creating artwork allows your mind to be in a safe place while it contemplates the tougher issues you are dealing with. One can use the tools of brush, paint, pastels, crayons, etc., to expose and even for a short time color those issues in a different light.” While art cannot cure substance use disorders (SUD) or mental health disorders, it can be used as a powerful complementary tool in treatment to help patients express and process difficult underlying emotions. Art therapy can be a valuable tool to facilitate the recovery process.

What is art therapy?

Using art therapy in the treatment of SUDs is not a new phenomenon. It has been used as a tool in SUD treatment since the 1950s. However, sitting and sketching or painting can be good for the mind and spirit, but it is not art therapy. According to the American Art Therapy Association, “Art therapy is an integrative mental health and human services profession that enriches the lives of individuals, families and communities through active artmaking, creative process, applied psychological theory and human experience within a psychotherapeutic relationship” (American Art Therapy Association, 2014).

A professional art therapist facilitates art therapy. Art therapists are master-level clinicians who must undergo a rigorous course of study that includes 100 hours of supervised practicum and 600 hours of supervised art therapy clinical internship (American Art Therapy Association, 2014).

A variety of creative activities are used in art therapy:

  • Creating sculptures
  • Painting
  • Drawing
  • Creating an art journal
  • Photography
  • Making a collage

Benefits of art therapy in SUD treatment

One study found that 38% of treatment programs offered art therapy. The study also suggested that art therapy is being used to complement other psychosocial treatments, which may ultimately improve patient outcomes by offering more robust treatment options.

Although we must be careful about generalizing due to study designs, research on the benefits of art therapy is widely documented. For example, one of the benefits of art therapy is that it gives patients in treatment the opportunity to express painful or difficult emotions nonverbally. This is only one of the many benefits of art therapy. There are other important benefits to using art therapy in treatment:

  • Improves self-esteem
  • Promotes self-awareness
  • Improves cognitive function
  • Fosters resilience
  • Breaks down opposition to treatment
  • Reduces denial
  • Motivates change
  • Promotes communication
  • Resolves conflicts
  • Improves insight
  • Decreases distress

These are all common issues that many people in substance use treatment struggle with, so it is no wonder art therapy can be a powerful tool in SUD treatment environments.

People who have been using substances can often feel as if they are destructive forces in this world. Art therapy gives them a chance to build and create rather than tear down. The works created in art therapy are tangible reminders that the substances are the destructive forces and not the patients themselves.

The emotions processed in art therapy are not only painful. They can be complex and abstract too. Working with the art therapist allows patients in treatment for SUDs to create something concrete to anchor those complex abstract feelings. Patients get to have a physical representation of those feelings, making it easier to focus on what they are trying to work through.

Dopamine & art therapy

It is difficult to stop using many substances because they can have such a powerful effect on the brain’s reward center. Dopamine is one of the neurotransmitters released when people do something pleasurable, and many substances act on dopamine.

Studies show that creating art can also cause a release of dopamine. By utilizing art therapy to help treat SUDs, patients can benefit from the dopamine release. They start to remember that using substances is not the only way to feel good. They may even begin engaging in other healthy activities that promote feelings of wellbeing such as meditation, exercise, picking up an old hobby again or getting closer to nature.

Art therapy & needs of female patients

Conventional approaches to treatment have been criticized for not meeting the unique needs of women, but some studies show that complementary approaches like art therapy could help meet those needs. Treatment programs with a greater percentage of women were more likely to use art therapy as well as music therapy.

Research suggests that art therapy is especially useful when working with victims of sexual assault. This is no surprise since thoughts and feelings surrounding the assault are usually intensely painful for the victims. Art therapy could be an effective way for victims to express and process what they think and feel when it is too painful to speak the words.

Art adds beauty to our world and enriches our lives, but can art also have a place in substance use disorder treatment? At Casa Palmera, we believe that it does. While we know that evidence-based practices are essential to the treatment of substance use disorders, we also believe in the importance and effectiveness of complementary and holistic treatment to promote healing in the mind, body and spirit. Call Casa Palmera today at (855) 508-0473 to learn more about our services.


This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be a substitute for medical advice. We understand that everyone’s situation is unique, and this content is to provide an overall understanding of substance use disorders. These disorders are very complex, and this post does not take into account the unique circumstances for every individual. For specific questions about your health needs or that of a loved one, seek the help of a healthcare professional.