I am often asked what one has to do to become an art therapist. I am going to tackle this question from two points today: the personal qualities one must have and the credentials and degrees that are needed to practice.
To be an art therapist, or any kind of therapist, in my opinion one must have a level of compassion for others. You must have a tolerance for hearing painful stories and knowing that people are still living in difficult situations. You must be patient. Change does not happen overnight for anyone and it cannot be forced. You must be humble. Therapists do not have the secret to a happy life and cannot dictate what will be meaningful and important to others. You must be hopeful. If you don’t believe that a person can change and grow, they won’t believe it either. When someone is in the depths of despair, you have to hold onto hope for them. You must be willing to face heartbreak, yours and the clients. You must be willing to educate others about your work. Art therapy is still unknown to many, and you will constantly be explaining your work to others. You must be able to use yourself as a tool. By this I mean you are able to hold onto other ‘s pain, let them bounce their feelings off of you, attend to your own internal responses, and reflect back to them from a place of honesty, compassion, and non-judgement. You must have a level of self-knowledge. This doesn’t mean that your own life is all worked out and perfect. I know plenty of therapists and we all have our own daily struggles. But you must be willing to look closely at yourself and your own actions and feelings so that you are responding to clients, not simply reacting.
Credentials and insurance reimbursement vary widely depending on where you live, so I am just going to talk about my decisions regarding degrees. My undergraduate degree was a Bachelor of Fine Arts with a minor in Psychology. There was no such thing as a bachelor’s degree in Art Therapy when I was an undergrad. I am glad I got a broader degree because I was exposed to the full liberal and fine arts education as opposed to a narrow specialization. It was important for me to consider all of my options and not lock into anything at the beginning of my higher education. I chose to specialize when I got to graduate school and have a Master’s in Art Therapy. Now the question is whether to get a PhD.
When I was in high school, I dreamed of getting a PhD. Instead of writing out my imagined married name, I wrote out my name with a string of letters after it. Now, I feel very differently about it. I want to have a PhD, I just don’t want to get one. There are a few PhD programs in Expressive Therapies, but the purpose of them seems to be to prepare you for a life in academia and research. This is not the direction I want to go. Anyway, I am already teaching and don’t need a PhD to do research or publish. A PsyD interests me, but again I don’t think it would further my career in a way that I would want. I would have to do some full-time internships, and how would I do that and still work? I also don’t need it to bill insurance, as my current credential of Licensed Mental Health Counselor allows me to do that.
The bottom line, as often happens, is money. If I won the lottery, I might consider going back to school. As it stands, I can’t work and go to school and the degree options available to me won’t further my career in any substantial way. The debt I would incur would offset any potential increase in salary.
So what is my advice to the person interested in becoming an art therapist? Get as many credits as you can in art and psychology as an undergrad. Find out what the requirements are to practice where you live. The credentials and ability to bill insurance vary widely. Get whatever credentials you can related to art therapy. Get whatever clinical license you can in your area. Get a Master’s Degree. You won’t be able to get any credentials without it. It is hard work to attain all of these, believe me, I know. But it will likely set you up to practice at both agencies and independently. And most importantly, don’t give up. Connect with everyone you can in person and on-line to buoy you on your journey.