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Does Art Therapy Work for Teen Addicts?

Teenager painting on.a canvas with blue paint

Almost everyone experiences moments when their emotions are so strong that they have trouble articulating how they feel. Now imagine the state of mind of a teen addict who may be dealing with intense feelings of depression, shame, anger, sadness, and hopelessness. Can you blame teens for being unable to talk about what is going on inside their heads?

That is why some adolescent addicts have found solace in art therapy. When these teens fail to express themselves vocally, they can turn to art as an outlet to unload their emotional burdens.

What is Art Therapy?

Art therapy has been around for over a half-century as a tool to help therapists and counselors treat patients who are suffering from mental health conditions. Usually, art therapy is what is known as a complementary and alternative medical (CAM) practice which is designed to aid primary treatment approaches like talk therapy or group counseling. The American Art Therapy Association (AATA) advocates for the expansion of access to these types of therapeutic methods.

How Does Art Therapy Help?

Unsurprisingly, art therapy has been embraced by many substance abuse treatment facilities which focus on teen addicts. This is especially true for those teenagers who already have natural artistic talents and are proficient at expressing their feelings and emotions through art. The artistic medium of choice can vary widely from painting and drawing to sculpting and photography to collage or mosaic construction.

While treatment centers allow teen addicts to articulate their emotions through their artistic works, they also embrace art therapy for specific exercises. For example, adolescents might be asked to paint how they feel when they let someone down due to their addiction, or use charcoal to depict their emotions during the times when they are strongly tempted to use drugs.

Other types of art therapy projects include painting or decorating a ceramic mask in a way that they feel they appear to the outside world and then writing on the inside of the mask the feelings or defects that they do not want others to see. Some therapists give shoeboxes to their addicts and instruct the teens to “fill them” with representations of their recovery, which symbolizes “filling the hole inside you” with things other than drugs or alcohol.

Without a Therapist, Art Therapy is Just Art

Some parents might encourage their artistic teenagers to portray their emotions in art either at home or in an art class in which the teen might enroll. Although this can be beneficial, it cannot replace a formalized art therapy session conducted by a qualified counselor or therapist in a treatment setting. 

That is because these therapists have the expertise to use art therapy to identify the underlying causes of an individual teen’s substance abuse issues. It is common for teen addicts to also be suffering from post-traumatic stress, mental illness, or feelings of inadequacy in their personal lives. Once these problems have been unearthed, these therapists can work with the teen to overcome these challenges as part of their substance abuse recovery program.

Teenager creating clay sculpture of a human form

The Future Promise of Art Therapy

Though research examining the impact of art therapy on teen addicts is scarce, some studies are optimistic about its impact. A 2014 article in the Journal of Addictions Nursing revealed that 12-step based treatment facilities and those who practiced motivational enhancement therapy tended to utilize art therapy as a CAM practice. 

On a more practical level, art therapy can act as an inducement to a teenager whose parents are trying to convince them to seek treatment for substance abuse. The parents might incentivize their offer by agreeing to let the teen attend a facility that provides art therapy. After all, parents who are desperately trying to get treatment for their teen addict can use all the help they can get.

For information on various substance abuse treatment facilities and methods, contact us today.

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